Monday, November 30, 2009

Sermon on Luke 19:28-40, for the First Sunday in Advent, "Your King is Coming!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Happy New Year! The new cycle of the church’s calendar begins this First Sunday in Advent, as the year begins with the expectation of Christ’s coming. Only we’re no longer awaiting the Christ child’s coming birth, as the prophets of Israel foretold, and has long ago been fulfilled. Rather we’re living in the expectation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead. In Advent we wait for our King, who’s coming to us, and we ready our hearts for His arrival. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It may seem strange to you that the church year begins out-of-sync with the regular calendar, by beginning almost 1 month sooner. It may seem even more strange that we have a reading about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the First Sunday in Advent! Why is Palm Sunday, from the week before Jesus’ death, brought into the season of Advent? Because this passage is about greeting our eternal king. Our King comes to us, righteous and having salvation (Zech. 9:9). Even Christmas focuses on the royalty of Jesus, as His mother Mary and her husband Joseph had to register in Bethlehem, because they were of the line of David, the King. After His birth, wise men also presented Him with gifts fit for a king.

The royal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem echoes many little details from the life and history of the ancient kings of Israel. It’s odd that Jesus would go to so much trouble to secure a donkey to ride into Jerusalem for a few short miles at the very end of His ministry, when He had spent almost all His teaching ministry walking from location to location on foot. But it was no accident. Jesus’ riding into the royal city of David on a donkey sounds very much like the coronation of Solomon, the son of King David. Solomon, whose name means “peace” foreshadowed Christ, who is the true Prince of Peace.

Briefly, what happened at Solomon’s coronation was this: King David was old and near death, and he’d not yet crowned one of his sons as his successor, though he’d promised the throne to his son Solomon. Adonijah, one of David’s older sons, tried to usurp the throne by gathering some of David’s royal officials and a priest, and throwing a feast of celebration for his self-proclaimed coronation. When the prophet Nathan, Queen Bathsheba, and those loyal to David heard of this, they called on King David to act quickly to name Solomon as his successor, and prevent Adonijah’s power-grab from becoming irreversible. So here’s the important part of the story—to confirm that Solomon was the real successor to the king, they had Solomon ride on the King David’s royal mule, as he was taken to be anointed as king (1 Kings 1).

After he rode the royal mule to be anointed, the crowds followed after with shouts of “Long live King Solomon!” and they blew the trumpets and played music on pipes and sang and rejoiced in the royal procession. Riding the royal mule, and then later being seated on David’s royal throne, were both acts that confirmed that David’s kingship was legitimately being transferred to Solomon, not Adonijah. A later story from the book of 2 Kings (9:13) showed people putting down their robes under the feet of another newly proclaimed king, as a sign of his royalty, much like the crowds laid their robes down on the road before Jesus.

These connections to Israel’s past kings were not lost on the Jews who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem that day. His entry on a donkey, the spreading of cloaks beneath Him, and palm branches waving—these all were acts for royalty. They had lived under foreign rule for hundreds of years, with no son of David to rule on the throne. Finally, it seemed, here was the one to reclaim the throne! Just as in the royal parade for Solomon, now nearly 1,000 years later the Jewish crowds in the same royal city raised their glad voices in the royal procession. They rejoiced and praised God for the mighty works Jesus had done, and said “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Undoubtedly such a politically-charged rallying-cry would have tensed the ears of the Roman government. What sort of mischief or revolt might be brewing? Even the Pharisees grew red in the face when they heard these shouts, and told Jesus to rebuke His disciples. But there was no silencing the crowds. Nor could Jesus deny that He was this king whom the people proclaimed. If He silenced His disciples, even the stones would cry out this truth. But He wasn’t the political king the Romans might have feared and the Jews wished and prayed for. Rather, He was the king foretold by the prophet Zechariah (9:9), who would enter Jerusalem in just this way. Zechariah prophesied some 500 years earlier, when the Jews were returning from their exile in the land of Babylon and Persia. He wrote: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10).

Jesus came as a king of peace, and while His actions and the actions of the crowd that day were unmistakably kingly, He clearly was no ordinary king. He required no special anointing from the priests, for He had been anointed with the Holy Spirit in His baptism. He needed no officials to transfer authority, no borrowed mule from the previous king to establish His legitimacy. He wore no finery or royal robes, and marched with no other army than a small band of fisherman, and ordinary, common people who were His disciples. He carried no sword or tools of war. He lavished no gifts of money or worldly wealth on those whom He desired as His subjects. He made no political promises.

He truly was the King of Peace that Zechariah prophesied would ride in on the donkey, your king [who] is coming to you—righteous and having salvation. No king is without a kingdom, and no kingdom is without its subjects. The crowd that day seemed to be willing subjects to their newfound Davidic king. But they seemed to expect the political favors and promises of an earthly king. And so would we, if we had the hope and promise of being subjects of a great and powerful king who could bring bounty and wealth and independence to our homeland. We can sympathize with the people who wanted earthly assurances of independence and safety and material gain. Sometimes we put too much hope and trust in such things. But loyal subjects proved few when Jesus died on the cross the following Friday. Who understood what kingdom this King of Peace represented? Who knew what kind of subjects He desired? We can have the same selfish thoughts about our King Jesus, and expect that being a follower of Him should mean a life filled with riches or free from suffering. But Jesus made no such promises. Rather, the marks of His kingdom would be division in the family over Him, persecution for His name, bearing a cross of trial and suffering, and the possible loss of all our material things and even life.

Doesn’t sound like a kingdom for the faint-of-heart, does it? Seems that there’s a lot to be lost in this kingdom, by following this king. No surprise that the would-be subjects turned tail when He died. But believe it or not, His kingdom really is for the faint-of-heart and for the weak and the downtrodden. You don’t have to be a “super-Christian” to be part of His kingdom. As the prophet spoke: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (Is. 35:3-4). Jesus strengthens the weak and feeble and anxious, and He alone is able to deliver them. For this King doesn’t depend on an army to do His fighting, He wins the battle alone. His own arm is strong to save. He doesn’t break the bruised reed or put out the dimly burning wick (Is. 42:3). He doesn’t crush those who are near to breaking, and He doesn’t snuff out the dim embers of a weak faith. He gives courage and faith to all who follow Him, and brings salvation to bear for all who are troubled by sin and fearful of death. His kingdom is no place for those who put confidence in their own flesh and might (Phil. 3:3). The mighty in His kingdom are those who know their weakness and dependency on Him (Phil. 4:13; 2 Cor. 12:9-10).

We already know this King’s road to triumph. We’ve heard the proof of His battle record, as He rode on in lowly majesty to His death on the cross, but unfurled banners of victory in the dungeons of hell (Col. 2:14-15; 1 Pet. 3:18-19), before rising from the dead in conquering might. We know the battle pains He endured, and we know the battle scars He bears on His hands and feet and side. We know that our King is now seated at the right hand of God the Father, ruling from His Father’s throne with His authority, and awaiting the day when all His enemies will become a footstool under His feet (Acts 2:34-35). Our King has proven His worth and His glory, and there’s no greater honor than to be subjects in His kingdom, the church. His kingdom grows peacefully, not through warfare. Zechariah said He speaks peace to the nations and His rule is from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. The peaceful growth of His kingdom comes when we spread the message of Jesus’ dying and living love for us—the message of His kingdom of peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins. It’s His message that wins hearts and turns enemies of God into His friends and loyal subjects.

But even we, His loyal subjects can at times grow weak and weary from the battle strain of life. We can become self-seeking, and want His rule only for what it gains for us. We use a “cost-benefit analysis” to see whether it’s worth the sacrifice or cost, not realizing that the eternal gains are immeasurable by our standards. We can be quick to run from the challenges He gives us to face. But our king knows our frailty, He knows our weaknesses, and He’s always on the battlefield with His Word and Spirit, to heal and mend those who’ve fallen, and to strengthen the weak knees. With His Word and Spirit, He works repentance and His peace in your hearts. As we prepare for His second coming, when He will descend on the clouds of heaven, He calls us to be prepared to receive Him. This Advent, pray for the Holy Spirit to level the rough places in our hearts, to lay low all stubbornness and pride, and to lift us up from fearfulness or exhaustion. Proclaim Him as our King and worship Him with glad songs, blessing our King who comes in the name of the Lord. May we greet the coming of our King with shouts of loud Hosannas and a bold faith in the one who saved us by His strong arm. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. What themes of Kingship are found in the story of Christ, from birth till death? How does the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem show themes of royalty? Read 1 Kings 1; 2 Kings 9:13; Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 118:25-26

2.Why was Israel especially waiting for and expecting a Messianic King? Since the time of the Davidic kings, they had alternately been ruled by the Assyrians (N. Kingdom only), Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and then Romans. What would the Romans have feared about such a demonstration? What reason did the Pharisees fear it? John 12:19

3. What indications were there from prophesy and from Jesus’ own life, that He was a King of Peace, not a political king who would make warfare? See Zech. 9:10; Isaiah 9:2-7

4. What was the misunderstanding of Jesus’ would-be subjects? How do Christians today sometimes mistake the meaning and benefits of being part of God’s kingdom? What makes for a “worthy subject” in Christ’s kingdom? Do we have to be “super-Christians?” Phil. 3:3; 4:13; 2 Cor. 12:9-10

5. How does Christ the King fight for us on the battlefield? Isaiah 35:3-4; 42:3; Col. 2:14-15; 1 Pet. 3:18-19; Acts 2:34-35

6. How should we greet His coming, and prepare for His return? What does He accomplish in us through His Word and Spirit?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sermon on Philippians 4:6-20 for Thanksgiving Day. "Thankful Thoughts and Life!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Happy Thanksgiving! Today is a holiday where we especially desire and encourage thankfulness to God. In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul shows us thankfulness in two ways: in having thankful thoughts and in a thankful life, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Paul wasn’t writing this from some position of comfort and ease, but he taught the Philippians contentment while he was writing from prison. He was in chains and facing possible death, yet in that dark place he rejoiced and gave thanks to the Lord. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Learning to have thankful thoughts and a thankful life is a spiritual discipline. It’s an exercise of our faith and a practice of growth in maturity. As a discipline, it’s something that doesn’t seem pleasant at the time, but in the end all discipline produces a harvest of righteousness (Heb. 12:11). The first verse again says, “The Lord is at hand, do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” If our goal is to have thankful thoughts, then anxiousness, worry, and difficulty in life wage battle against us reaching that goal and steal our joy.

Anxiety and worry are the opposite of thankfulness. Worry is a completely unproductive activity. It doesn’t change our situation for the better, and sometimes it can even be worse. One member shared a good saying about worry with me: “Worry is like a rocking chair—it keeps you occupied but gets you nowhere.” How true—we often spin our wheels or rock back-and-forth worrying so much about what might or might not be, and it never gets anything accomplished. Worry and fear can keep us from taking action. And it’s not like we can’t come up with plenty of good reasons or “excuses” to be worried. There’s worries about the dismal economy and the high rates of unemployment. People’s retirement savings are in jeopardy or have been lost. The education system seems broken and underfunded. Confidence in the government is low. Costs of living climb faster than our pay does. Financial stress puts strain on relationships. All these things could give a person sleepless nights.

But all of these things are earthly needs, and Jesus directly says that God knows our needs before we ask and will provide them—so we shouldn’t worry about what we’ll eat or drink or wear, but know our Father cares for us. Another wise and welcome piece of advice that I’ve shared with many of you was given to me by my sister. She used this Bible verse to show how to be alert to bad thoughts and worries that creep into your mind. When you start to worry, or have bad thoughts on your mind, ask yourself these questions? Is what I’m thinking about true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Pure? Lovely? Commendable? Excellent? Or worthy of praise? If the answer to any of those questions is “NO!”, then guess what?! We shouldn’t be thinking about those things! We should set our thoughts on what is true, honorable, just, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. What sort of things would these be? Where can we turn our attention away from gloomy or despairing thoughts? There is nothing truer, more honorable, just and praiseworthy than Christ Jesus and all of His gifts of salvation. Setting our minds on Christ and on holy things—the gifts of salvation and God’s Holy Word, will help to drive dark thoughts from us. Set your mind on higher things.

Going backwards from those verses for a minute, it describes more about having a thankful thought-life. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When worry and anxiousness cloud your mind, turn to prayer. Pray that God would lift the worry from your heart, just as He tells us to “cast our anxieties on Him, because He cares for us.” Pray for peace in your circumstances, and say your prayers with thanksgiving! Start to count your blessings, and give thanks for them all by name. Begin to realize all the things God gives to you in just your daily bread—the supply and needs of our daily life. As Luther named those gifts in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, he listed “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” As we begin to give thanks for and see all that God has already done in our lives and blessed us with, we ought to witness greater trust in Him.

And God’s peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus! In times of trouble and worry and hardship in life, we need God’s peace more than anything. Did you ever think about what it means that His peace surpasses understanding? And not just human understanding, but all understanding, even angelic understanding? But why should peace be better than understanding? We’re people who want to know, after all! When severe trials or losses face us in life, we’re often plagued by questions. Why did God let this happen to me? What’s going to happen? Where’s God when I pray? We want knowledge and answers, but the answers are almost never forthcoming. But here’s a situation where God’s peace surpasses understanding. In situations like these, we just don’t have the knowledge or understanding, but having God’s peace rule and guard your hearts is better. We can have peace in the midst of trouble, even when we don’t understand the why, the what, or the how. We can rest in God’s love and mercy, even when questions go unanswered.

After having thankful thoughts, the second way in which we show our thankfulness is through a thankful life. Paul wrote about how the Philippians showed their thankfulness through their concern and generosity to him. Having him in their thoughts and prayers was strengthening to him as he suffered for the Gospel in prison. He rejoiced at their show of sympathy and love for him. Their thankfulness was expressed in the generosity of their charity. Our lives reflect thankfulness when we show compassion and concern for others, and when we’re generous in our charity. It reflects the knowledge that what we have is not our own, but a gift to be used in God’s service. Generosity also acknowledges that because of God’s limitless generosity, we already have more than we need.

Paul shared with them the secret of his thankful life—the secret of contentment. Our human nature is inclined to think that contentment is a state that we’ll arrive at once all our ducks are in a row. Once we have reached our goals in life, have all the things that we want, have good and healthy relationships—when we reach that decisive moment—then we’ll be content. Perhaps we could freeze life in one ideal moment. But this is not the kind of contentment that Paul knows of or teaches. He knew contentment in all circumstances: whether he had plenty or was in hunger, whether he was in a time of abundance or a time of need. Even if there was a change in store for him—he knew contentment. His contentment didn’t come from keeping the “status quo.” Do we know contentment when we lack the things we want? When life doesn’t seem to be turning our way? When we seem skeptical of our future? Chances are, these aren’t times when we feel particularly content. Most likely they’re times when we relapse into worry or even complaining. But the secret of contentment is this—in all circumstances to know that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us!

Paul didn’t need all the pleasantries of life, or even his physical freedom from prison—he knew contentment even there. Because the source of his strength, of his contentment, wasn’t in himself, but in Christ Jesus who gave him strength. He knew the strength or weakness of his own position was incomparable to the strength of God who worked in Him. He reflected on God’s provision for him and for the Philippians with these words: “my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Paul could think and live with thankfulness and generosity, because he knew that every need would be supplied by God with the riches in Christ Jesus. All our thanksgiving goes back to God, because He’s the One with the endless store of blessings that He pours out for us. The riches of His love that knows no bounds, the riches of His grace that reaches for every sinner, the riches of His kindness that knows our every need. The precious body given for us, and the sacred lifeblood that poured from His veins as the treasure that purchased our salvation. Whether we’re in abundance or in need, whether in plenty or in hunger, we know the one who has riches beyond measure, that supply us in our need.

Finding a heart of thankfulness and knowing how to live that life of thankfulness is not something that’s born within us, from our own willpower or determination. But rather it’s from the riches of God being poured into our lives. It’s having the true, pure, and noble thoughts of Christ to focus our hope and our life on. Living by His grace and mercy we know contentment. We know the peace that surpasses understanding and guards our hearts and minds. We know that we can do all things, through Him who strengthens us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon on Mark 13:24-37, for the Last Sunday in the Church Year, "From Survival to Salvation"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is the Last Sunday in the Church Year, a day on which we particularly focus on and remember the promised return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead. The text is the Gospel of Mark. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

If the popularity of Hollywood disaster movies is any indication at all, the spectacular and terrifying end of the world and/or civilization as we know it is a topic that fascinates a lot of people. Several times a year we’re treated with the newest scenario for the end of the world/judgment day. Humanity is alternately wiped out by aliens, giant asteroids, killer diseases, rampaging robots, vast computer intelligences, nuclear holocausts, global warming, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. What’s popular this month is the movie 2012, which says the Ancient Mayans ended their calendar in that year because they predicted doomsday then. Of course this kind of entertainment isn’t ever expected to stimulate anyone to deep thinking. Quite the opposite. But anyway it’s worth noticing a common theme in all of these movies is the survival of some of humanity against overwhelming odds. The main objective of the people in the movie is to rescue, escape, hide, fight back, or otherwise extend their survival so that they can somehow live on in the post-apocalyptic world. Depending on how dreary the movie is, the existence of the survivors after the disaster is usually quite bleak, but at least they have life,
love, and freedom.

Now behind all the preposterous special effects and absurd story lines, there’s a grain of truth buried under the fiction. The truth is that the world will come to an end one day, and that there will be a deliverance. But that’s about where the comparison ends. Unlike the movies, where some part of humanity always survives, and the earth is brought back from the brink of disaster—the real destruction of the earth will be total and complete, with nothing left. While we can’t take such movies and entertainment seriously, there’s a real judgment day awaiting us and all the earth, and we do need to know about it and be prepared. All attempts to pinpoint the date of that judgment are futile, as Jesus said: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Jesus foretells the end of the world in a way that’s at the same time very simple and yet also dramatic. The sun will be darkened, the moon will no longer give it’s light—a darkness much like that at His crucifixion will shroud the earth. The stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. While it’s difficult to envision exactly what all this means or how precisely it will happen, the picture is of a catastrophe on a universal scale—not just our home planet Earth. When it says the “powers in the heavens will be shaken” it’s truly a “cosmic-quake” we’re talking about. Nothing on the order of the earthquakes we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, which are localized and last for a few seconds or minutes. The apostle Peter records it this way: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10).

On the one hand, this could all be very terrifying news. The whole universe will literally be falling apart at its seams. It used to be that scientists thought that matter and the universe were eternal and would always be here. But with the advent of modern physics and the understanding of the atom and the forces that hold it together, we know that physical matter isn’t indestructible or eternal. Nuclear power can literally tear matter apart at its foundation. The fabric of the universe really can be torn apart and the “powers in the heaven be shaken.” It will be a frightening experience for sure, except for those who know it’s coming and know where to look for deliverance.

Notice the contrast that Jesus describes in the midst of this chaos and destruction. He says the “powers in the heaven will be shaken.” All the physical forces or powers of nature will have gone haywire, the spiritual powers or forces of darkness will be trembling at their coming judgment, all earthly powers and authorities will be bowing their knees to the One King. But amid all this quaking chaos and instability descends the Son of Man, riding on the clouds with what? With great power and glory. All the powers in the universe will be shaken to their core; will prove weak and empty on that day. But there is One power that will be unshakeable, unstoppable, and eternal. And that’s the power of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. If we look to Him and trust in Him, we will be sheltered in the Mighty Fortress that is our God. “We will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:2). We’ll attach ourselves to Him, because though the “heaven and earth will pass away, [His] words will not pass away.” Christ and His Word are the eternal power we grab hold of.

So for us, there’s no reason to fear—for we know that if we survive till that day, that we are Christ’s and that we’ll be caught up with the Lord. The Son of Man will send out His angels and gather His chosen, His elect, from the four winds or corners of the earth. No believer in Christ will remain isolated, lost or hidden, but all will safely be gathered to Him. The Lord has His eyes set on us for our good (Jer. 24:6) and He knows our address—He watches over all our steps. Though there’s no reason to fear, there is reason to be sober-minded and to be alert to the signs of His coming. He gave us this warning and knowledge beforehand so that we wouldn’t be caught unprepared for His coming. For it’ll happen suddenly, and at an unexpected time.

From the first parable of the fig tree, Jesus teaches us the lesson that His return shouldn’t catch us by surprise, because we should be able to recognize the signs that He’s near. He’s told us these signs—wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, etc will all precede His return. From the second parable of the master leaving on a journey and leaving His servants in charge, each with their work—we’re to learn to be alert and watchful of His coming. He has assigned us each our work and tasks, and we’re not to remain idle. His coming could be at any time, so His command to us is “Stay awake.” Obviously it doesn’t literally mean that we shouldn’t sleep; but that we should be alert and spiritually watchful for His coming. Living lives that are godly and pleasing to Him, and praying for His return (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Briefly back to the movie comparison, you remember that all these disaster movies are about survival, and that the survivors live on in the world that has been ravaged by disease, warfare, or catastrophe. Their survival is bittersweet. But when Christ returns and gathers us from all corners of the earth and rescues us from the great destruction of the heavens and the earth, we’re not looking forward to a bittersweet survival in a ravaged world—but we’re looking forward to the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). We’re not looking for survival—we’re waiting for the fulfillment of salvation! Our deliverance from the faltering, dying, perishing world that has reached its last breath will be a deliverance of total rescue into the heavenly mansions and the new creation that God has prepared for all believers. No more fear or threatening, or any danger to harm us.

The story of our survival…no…of our salvation, and of the strong deliver who rescued us from overwhelming odds surpasses all the bland and mediocre disaster stories that man can invent. The overwhelming odds were stacked in this way: every one of the billions of human beings that have lived on earth had one clear and deserved fate—eternal death in hell because of our sin. The threat of that existence is one of unimaginable terror. No one was destined to survive, no one had the strength to overcome the powers and authorities of darkness in this present age (Eph. 6:12). Then one man, the Son of Man, the promised Messiah and hero, stepped in against the enemy, faced the enemy…and died. The hero of the story died! And there were no other heroes to step in and carry on the fight!

It was the last hope of all humanity that died. But the remarkable twist in the story was that His death became the stronghold of life for us. His death blindsided the devil and all evil with that marvelous unraveling power that Christ will put to work again in the day of His return. The marvelous power by which He holds all things together (Col. 1:17) and by which He can pull all things apart. By His innocent death, and passing through the portal and into the stronghold of death, He burst open the gates of hell and shattered the chains that kept us in bondage to sin. Forgiveness and life unraveled all the works of evil, all the power of the devil that held us captive. Life triumphed when Jesus rose. Salvation came in the most unlikely way.

On the last day, at Jesus’ return, the survival…no…the Salvation from the end of this world will be by clinging to Him who alone will stand firm and unshaken on that day. The devil has no more ammunition, no more venom that He can attack Christ with, because all the guilt of sin was unraveled in Jesus’ cross. That stake in the ground on which Jesus hung marked the battle line which God drew upon the earth. All the forces of evil can and did crashed against Jesus on that cross, and like a Mighty Fortress He remained immovable, till His innocent death raised an invincible stronghold around us. That invincible stronghold is the perfect righteousness or innocence of Jesus—the glory of the Son of Man who gave His life for ours. By repenting of sin and trusting in Him, we remain inside that invincible stronghold, and will be kept safe from all evil through the day of His coming. His salvation will be forever and His righteousness will never be dismayed (Is. 51:6b). In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. What makes “end of the world” disaster movies so popular? Why is it futile to try to place a date on the world’s end? (Mark 13:32).

2. What information does Jesus give us about the end of the world? The apostle Peter? (2 Peter 3). What are the warning signs? (read all of Mark 13).

3. What does it mean that the “powers in the heavens will be shaken?” What power remains unshaken on the Last Day? How does Jesus stand as a refuge for all believers on that day? (Psalm 46; Isaiah 41:6; Mark 13:26, 31).

4. What do each of the two parables in our reading teach us about Jesus’ return and how we are to be prepared for it? How are we to “be on guard, stay awake?”

5. In what way are we expecting much more than mere survival, but a total and complete salvation? On what does our hope rest? What odds were against our salvation?

6. How did Jesus, the hero of our story, save us? How did He put His almighty power to work in His first coming, and how will He put it to work again in His second coming? How’s the real story of salvation superior to all the earthly stories that echo it? What’s the conclusion? Where do you fit in?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25 for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, "Draw Near With a True Heart"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. On All Saints’ Day two weeks ago we heard this verse from the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To have access to God, to see Him, we must be pure in heart. Those words could strike fear in the heart of every sinner and shake their confidence, because who can claim to have a pure heart? But our reading today says that we do have confidence and the full assurance of faith. Today we’ll see what the Christian’s confidence is, and how it affects how we live out our Christian life. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Its common for us to say or hear someone say: “That person has a good heart.” Usually by this we mean they’re kind, generous, loving or something like that. And it’s not as though people only mean Christians when they talk this way. While this certainly can be true by our standards, that one person is nicer or more generous than the next—the real question that remains is what does it mean to have a pure heart, a true heart, by God’s standards? Are we pure in heart so that we can see God? How will we be able to draw near to God?

Well God’s standard of pure is total perfection. As if it weren’t hard enough to just keep from doing sinful actions, this standard looks even to the thoughts and intentions of our heart. Not just you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal—but Jesus shows that it goes further to the heart: you shall not hate, you shall not lust, you shall not covet. The plans and wishes to do evil are sinful in themselves, even without the actions. That has to be devastating news to anyone who’s building their own ladder up to heaven, trying to see God by their own actions or good works. You’ve climbed a ladder with cracked and broken rungs only to realize that the wall to heaven you must scale reaches miles above your tiny ladder. You’ve examined your heart and seen that you could never call it pure. Selfishness, bitterness, jealousy, rivalry, greed have all visited your heart. If a pure heart is the test, then we’ve failed.

But if that has shaken your confidence, then it’s a good thing, believe it or not! God’s Word must shake our confidence in our human works and ability, so that we will place no confidence in ourselves. Rather, we need the confidence that the writer to the Hebrews speaks about today. He says that we can have confidence to “enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh.” We truly can have an unshakeable confidence about heaven and about seeing God one day. Not a confidence of our own, but a confidence in the blood of Jesus, who opened the way for us to the Father. It is through Jesus that we can have a pure heart. This is how it happens: we can draw near to God with a true heart in the full assurance of faith (that means not doubting!!) with our hearts sprinkled clean!

Our hearts are washed pure by Christ. The perfect heart that is unattainable by us is given by Him. Verse 14 says, “By a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Jesus’ one-time sacrificial death cleansed us perfectly for all time. The ongoing work of our sanctification, the process of being made holy in this life, is not complete; but look again in verse 22 about what it says about our hearts! “With our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” An evil, guilty conscience is washed clean in Christ. The convicted heart that groans under God’s judgment is set free and finds in Jesus the air to breathe, the life to sustain. All the scars and wounds of past sins and hurts that weigh on our heart are sprinkled clean. The blood of Jesus washing us clean like a gentle rain. The rain of pure water that showers over us in our Baptism, washing and restoring us as clean in God’s sight. Giving us the rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit to continue that work of God’s change in us to reflect His love and mercy.

In baptism God places a pure heart in us, just as He promised from Old Testament times. He would sprinkle clean water on us to cleanse us from uncleanness, and put a new heart and a new spirit within us (Ezek. 36:25-26). God promised that this change of heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh would include the gift of His Spirit, so that we would be careful to obey God’s rules (Ezek. 36:27). Our bodies washed in the water that Jesus made pure in His baptism, our consciences cleansed to be free of guilt, we’re set on a new path of obedience in life. This new obedience is not our ground of confidence for approaching God or approaching the holy places. We have our confidence and draw near through the blood of Jesus alone.

This confidence and full assurance of faith in Christ Jesus gives rise to a second thing that we are to do, after drawing near with a true heart. We are to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Faith naturally gives birth to confession—to acknowledge or speak back to God what He has told us. While faith is the trust of God within our heart, it does not remain there, but it produces speech. Our faith can never be silent or remain forever invisible. It’s like the disciples Peter and John, who were told to never speak again in the name of Jesus, and they replied “We cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard!” (Acts 4:20). So it is with the Christian. We cannot keep it bottled up as if there was nothing to tell, or no one to tell it to. The joy and hope of the salvation we have in Christ Jesus will naturally produce speech. We as God’s chosen priesthood of the baptized are given His speech to “proclaim the excellencies” of what He’s done (1 Peter 2:9). This is not to say that it will always come easily to us.

Our sinful nature wars against this desire to proclaim His excellencies. It wants us to be mute Christians, silent in the face of opposition or disapproval, silent when the opportunities come to witness. I’ve been guilty of this many times, when a natural opportunity to speak the goodness of God to me came up, and I failed from fear or shyness. But if we pray for God to open our mouths and if we make ourselves His willing servants by faith, then God will provide opportunities and will use us. We are called to hold fast to our confession of hope. Holding fast is the opposite of being non-committal, wishy-washy, or wavering. It’s to be firm and decided, to have confidence and certainty. But this confidence and certainty is again not born from ourselves, but from the faithfulness of Christ who promised us. The hope we have in Him is not a hope that disappoints (Rom. 5:5), but a certain hope grounded in the God who keeps His promises. He impresses this certainty in our hearts by faith.

The final thing the reader to the Hebrews calls us to do is to consider how we are to “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Stir up, motivate, urge one another on to doing good and showing love. Don’t become complacent or inactive in your faith, but put yourself to work for the kingdom of God. In your position and calling in life there is a complete arena for you to practice love and good works with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and yes even your enemies. Consider how we can stir one another up. Is there some special talent or gift that you have that you might put to work in the church or in the community? Are you a good leader? An encourager? A dutiful worker? Offer yourself to the Lord’s use.

Apparently it was already a problem in the first century church, that Christians were neglecting to meet together for worship. It was becoming a bad habit for those who believed to avoid the public assembling for worship. Today we have the same. But I’m preaching to the choir. Of course you’re already here. But many live as though gathering for worship each week was just one of many tasks on our to-do list, and one that often drops off the bottom when other priorities arise. Someone asked: “Can I be a Christian without joining the church? Answer: Yes, it is possible. It is something like being: A student who will not go to school. A soldier who will not join an army. A citizen who does not pay taxes or vote. A salesman with no customers. An explorer with no base camp. A seaman on a ship without a crew. A businessman on a deserted island. An author without readers. A tuba player without an orchestra. A parent without a family. A football player without a team. A politician who is a hermit. A scientist who does not share his findings. A bee without a hive.” I think you see the point. But to put it more biblically, it would be like a body that has an eye but no hand, a head but no feet, or an ear but no nose. What is a body with just one part?

Christians are not meant to be cut off from community with other believers. Worship is commanded in the third commandment. But even more than doing it because its commanded, we simply ought to worship for the same reason that we eat. We cannot survive without food, and so also our Christian faith will starve without God’s Word and Sacraments. It’s like cutting yourself off from the very source of health and nourishment, and expecting to survive. The communal nature of the Christian faith in the Scriptures is unmistakable. We’re called a spiritual house assembled by living stones, a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), a body with members joined and articulated together (Eph. 4:19; 1 Cor. 12), members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). We’re not meant to stand alone. The church is the primary place where we stir up one another to love and good works. It’s the place where we encourage one another and prepare for a life marked by our confession of hope. It prepares us to live in the world as confessing believers, with God’s speech on our lips and tongues. For we know the Day is drawing near. Next Sunday marks the last Sunday in our Church Year, and it’s at this time of year we especially remember the Lord’s promised return.

The expectation of His return calls us to examine how we’ve done in all this Christian life. And we’ll again see that a pure heart and a bold confession of faith are only ours by the mercy and blood of Jesus Christ, not by any success or achievement of our own. We confess our sins and turn to the only promised source of mercy. Only by what Jesus has done in dying and rising for us can we have confidence that He has opened the way for us. He descended from heaven to earth to carry us up to be with Him. So if we’re knocked off our ladders, consider it a good thing, and be glad that your confidence rests not in yourself, but in the God who’s faithful to what He’s promised. Day by day we’re readying ourselves for the final Day when Christ returns, when our hope will be realized, and we’ll enter heaven through the new and living way that is Jesus’ flesh, offered on the cross. With a heart sprinkled pure by His blood, we’ll see God. From this day on, and until that day, let us draw near to God with a True Heart. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. Why must we have a pure heart to see God? Matt. 5:12. How does the Scripture describe our sinful heart? Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9-10; Matt. 15:18-20. What could prevent us from seeing God?

2. How does God give us the pure heart we need? How is this different from how we often speak of someone having a “good heart?” Ezek. 36:25-27.

3. How does this give the Christian confidence? Confidence of what and to do what?

4. What things might prevent us from holding fast to our confession of hope? What might cause us to waver? How do we make the bold confession? Read Acts 4; 1 Peter 2:9-12.

5. What can you do to stir others up in their love and good works? What can you offer in service yourself?

6. Why is worship an essential part of the Christian life? Is this law or gospel? What happens gradually if we remove ourselves from Christian fellowship?

7. Finally as the day of judgment approaches, where do we find our Christian confidence and certainty?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sermon on Mark 13:38-44, for LWML Sunday, "Of Mites and Women"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today on this Lutheran Women’s Missionary League or LWML Sunday, we remember that even the smallest gift, given in faith, can be of great effect. So we look to the example of the widow who Jesus describes in the reading, who gave her last two mites as her offering in faith. It’s faith, not the size of the gift that made this widow a spiritual “big-giver.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 16:5-6 reads: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” A portion is your slice of the pie, it’s the piece that’s given to you. If you are a hungry eater, you go for the larger portions. A lot is your portion of an inheritance. It’s the property, wealth, or possessions that are designated for you in an inheritance. But the Psalmist says “The LORD” is my portion. GOD is our portion and lot! God is the greatest gift that is given to you—not wealth or land or material things. Truly we can say that the boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places and we have a beautiful inheritance. It’s rather unusual to think of inheriting in this way. But having the Lord as your portion is a bigger inheritance than anything imaginable. And we don’t receive a percentage or a slice, as if God could be divided—but He is our whole portion.

The widow that gave her offering in the Temple lived her life according to this principle. She gave as though God were her portion, and she could give it all away and be secure in Him and His provision for her. She wasn’t giving because she was thinking about what others think, but she gave out of her trust and reliance on God. Jesus saw her while He was teaching publicly in the Temple. He warned people of living their lives in the pursuit of status. The scribes or teachers of the law were notorious for this. Their vanity was to be recognized and honored by people. To take the best place for everything and to make lengthy, showy prayers. They wanted people to be impressed by their holiness and prestige. Their portion, their reward would be the praise of men, but the condemnation of God. Status was very important to them. The devouring of widow’s houses shows they were worse than tax collectors. They took advantage of widows in some way, perhaps by imposing on their generosity beyond what they could afford, or by swindling them out of their money in some way.

These supposed men of God, were to be about the teaching of God’s Word to His people in their service in the Temple. Instead they were fleecing the poor while presenting an appearance of holiness. But they were no men of God—certainly not of the God who calls Himself “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5a). God would return their evil upon them, and they would face the greater condemnation. God is the protector of the widow, the One in whom that widow put all her trust.

Gathering the attention and admiration of the crowds in the Temple would’ve been an easy task for the rich who came to bring their offering. In the outer courts of the Temple, called either the Court of Prayer or the Court of Women, there were thirteen different offering boxes. Each had a trumpet-like opening or mouth through which people dropped in their offering. The wide mouth flared open like a Hebrew shofar or ram’s horn, with a narrow neck at the bottom to keep people from reaching into the treasury box below. Each of the thirteen offering boxes were designated for a different use. Seven of the boxes were for compulsory offerings or temple taxes, and six were for various freewill offerings—the purchase of certain sacrifices, incense, gold vessels, etc. When you imagine that scene, with Jesus sitting amidst a bustling crowd of worshippers moving around the Temple Courts by these offering boxes—you can begin to see and hear how the rich would make a show of their giving.

Imagine the sound of the offering box. With no paper currency, the metallic waterfall of coins jangling and clinking down the trumpet-shaped opening must have caught the ear of many. You could hear how much they put in, even if you couldn’t see the coins. Gold, silver, bronze, copper. Surely people noticed who were the big givers. But two wafer-thin copper mites would barely clink in the box. A tiny sound hushed by the bustling crowd. If anyone even noticed at all, they might have scoffed or whispered at her insignificant gift. Why didn’t she at least keep one to herself? But it made no difference what they thought. Her gift was great in God’s eyes, not theirs. A basic truth of Christianity is that we are to humble ourselves, not exalt ourselves. Making ourselves look great in other’s eyes is not our goal—rather we
should make ourselves lesser and take the place of humility.

The lot she was assigned in life was already a place of humility by default. She had no status or wealth to show off. She had only her faith in God, and two coins that were together worth less than a penny. What you might get for ten to fifteen minutes of work in those days. But it was all she had to live on. Unlike today—there was no such thing as a life insurance policy that could help provide for her after her husband’s death. The only life insurance policy a woman in ancient times could hope for was having a son, like the widow in the Old Testament reading. One day he could be old enough to earn wages to provide for her. While the Jewish synagogues made provisions for the poor to prevent her from facing starvation, she was still consigned to a life of extreme poverty. How pitiful were her circumstances that all her wealth, all she had to her name, was less than a penny. This was all she had to live on, and she gave it away.

So we can see how this widow lived her life according to the principle that the LORD was her portion and her cup, and that He held her lot. She wouldn’t have thrown her last two coins into that box if it weren’t for her confidence that God would provide for her needs. We can have that same confidence if we cast our lot with the Lord. Jesus showed her faith as a lesson in giving—where others gave from their abundance and had plenty left over, she gave from her poverty and had nothing left. And so her gift was far greater than all the impressive sums of money that rattled and clinked their way into the offering box.

It doesn’t take faith to give out of your excess or your leftovers. The author C.S. Lewis wrote this about giving: “I do not believe one can settle on how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.” His point is that the measure of giving is not how large or small our gift is, but whether it is sacrificial. We can see how sacrificial our giving is by whether we have to cut back on some other luxuries or comforts we might otherwise enjoy.

Real generosity is also kind of reckless. The widow could have kept back one mite for herself, but she threw them both in, trusting in the God who was her portion and lot. When we give with generously we don’t hold back for ourselves, but open our hand with no expectation of return or reward. What a remarkable thing, that Jesus chooses this act of giving, that amounted to less than a penny, as the finest and most admirable example of generous giving in all the Bible.

The widow was a spiritual big-giver. Her gift had more weight than all the other gifts, even though the amount was miniscule. We can be a spiritual big-giver even if we don’t have large sums to give. You’d have to wonder what could anyone do with so small a sum. It seems that it couldn’t accomplish anything. But what we fail to remember is that it isn’t the giver or the amount of the gift that is significant. Rather it is God, who can put the smallest gift to great work, and bring abundance out of lack. The widow certainly gave from her lack, there was nothing else to support her but the mercy of God in which she trusted.

When we as sinners cast our lot in with Jesus, the Lord is our portion and lot. We learn that it’s better not to build our life on status and reputation, or showy displays of giving to gain attention. Rather, we should do our giving secretly and without looking for praise. We put our trust in the Lord, and receive in Him our full portion, our overflowing cup, and the lot of our inheritance. In the Lord we gain far more than wealth or status can give. We gain a Father and a Savior who possesses all things. We gain a Lord who will always be our guardian. We gain a heavenly family to call our own, and to live with in harmony in our Father’s eternal mansion in heaven. If we have cast our lot with Jesus, then there will be no lack or shortage of anything for us. The widow gave from her poverty, and yet the abundance of God belonged to her. So also God grants His abundance to us. He fills up what is lacking. He supplies our needs before we know them.

If we have the Lord, we can be content in all circumstances. We can live in contentment in whatever our state: whether in plenty or hunger, abundance or need, because we can do all things through God who strengthens us (Phil. 4:11-13). The God who can work great things from the offering of a widow’s mites; the God who can turn the dust of the earth into man; the God who prolonged the oil and flour of the widow in Elijah’s day; the God who takes the littlest gift of faith, and puts it to mighty work in His kingdom. This God strengthens and supplies us in our need, and will not leave us needy or forsaken. He is the one who gave the costliest gift, who made the greatest sacrifice in giving, when Jesus offered up His life for our sins. He became poor for us, giving up everything He possessed in heavenly glory, and yes even His life. He gave it all up so that He could take away our sins. His purchase makes the Lord our portion and our lot. No gift compares to this, and He desires to give it to you and to all of us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. Read Psalm 16:5-6. What does it mean to have the Lord as our portion or lot? How does this order our priorities in life?

2. What mattered most to the scribes? (Mark 12:38-40). How does this differ from the way Jesus taught us to give and to pray? Matt. 6:1-8. What are examples where we fall into the trap of showing off our status or our “holiness”?

3. What was the status of a widow? Who guards the widow? Psalm 68:5; Malachi 3:5

4. Why is a place of humility better than a place of honor? Mark 10:31, 42-45.

5. Why should giving and true generosity be sacrificial? What might we sacrifice in our giving? What made the widow’s gift bigger than all the others?

6. Who was the ultimate example of sacrificial giving? What did Jesus acquire for our inheritance through His death on the cross and resurrection?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Scripture Alone in the Lutheran Reformation

Happy Reformation Day! This October 31st, 2009 is the 492nd year since Martin Luther began the Reformation of the Christian church on October 31st, 1517, by nailing 95 Theses or Statements to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The events that followed that initial protest against the church’s corruption of salvation have reverberated through history and we in the Lutheran church are heirs of that Reformation. While most of us aren’t students of history, there are many valuable lessons relating to Christian faith and life, and to the definition of the church that we would do well to learn from that period, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

I want to briefly focus your attention this month on one particular issue of importance that was debated during the Reformation. That was the authority of the Bible, or Holy Scripture. You may be familiar with one Lutheran slogan of the Reformation: “Sola Scriptura” or “through Scripture Alone.” The question was this: “What is the authority for deciding church doctrine (teaching)?” All Christian churches, and even sects or cults that claim the name of Christ Jesus, in some way or another claim the Bible as their authority. Yet there is a huge difference in what is taught. These differences between Christian churches can largely be explained from the seriousness with which they take the Bible as the authority, or what authorities they place above the Scripture.

The cry of “Scripture Alone!” was a response to the Roman Catholic church’s stance of determining church teaching on the basis, not of Scripture alone, but of Scripture plus the church. The church held equal authority to the Scriptures, in the Roman view of things. By church, they didn’t mean a local congregation, but rather the Pope as the divine representative of Christ, or the teachings of church councils (assemblies of bishops to discuss doctrinal matters). The Lutheran Reformers recognized that this gave a unwarranted power to the church, placing the church over the Scriptures, rather than under them. This allowed corruptions to creep into Christian teaching, inching ever further from the Scriptures. Since the time of the Reformation, the Roman church has actually confirmed or extended the authority of the Pope. At the 1870 Vatican I council, the Roman church officially decreed that the Pope is infallible (cannot err) when he makes official proclamations concerning Christian faith and morals.

This is an astonishing example of man being elevated above the Scriptures as a higher authority. However, the teaching of “Scripture Alone” in the Reformation, is just as much opposed to the individualistic elevation of man above the Scriptures. This happens today in a variety of Protestant churches (indeed in the Lutheran church as well!), when we place our own personal human reason or interpretation above the clear statements of Scripture. When our “reason” rejects some plain teaching of Scripture, or reinterprets it to suit our own needs or desires, then we have made ourselves our own “private pope” over the Scriptures. In contrast to both of these errors, the Lutheran Reformation held that all matters of doctrine and life were determined, governed, defined by Scripture Alone. Scripture is the judge of man and of the church—man does not serve as the judge of Scripture.

God’s Word has the final say in the matter. The teaching of Scripture Alone does not exclude or disregard all other authorities, such as the writings and teachings of other Christians throughout history—rather it acknowledges their proper place—as subservient to the Scriptures. Everything is to be judged and tested by God’s Word. All creeds, confessions, sermons, devotional writings—in short, all Christian teachings—are to be bound to this highest and greatest standard of the Holy Scriptures. When man becomes the judge of Scripture, it won’t be long before we begin to discard God’s teachings as we see fit. On this anniversary of the Reformation, may we, heirs of the Reformation, humbly submit ourselves under God’s Word, as the Divine Authority that rules our faith and our life. May we willingly hear His Scriptures and submit to their rebuke, correction, and training of us for righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Guided by Scripture Alone, God’s Word will be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, (Ps. 119:105) so that we can bring the Light to a world shrouded in spiritual darkness (John 1:1-4; Isaiah 9:2).

Lutherans in the News Lately

Lutherans aren’t known for getting a lot of attention in the news. They tend to slip under the radar more often than not—while other Christian churches make the headlines. But things changed in August, as headlines like these flashed: “Lutherans adopt more open view on gays,” “Lutherans approve gay ministers.” What’s all this about? The 4.8 million member Lutheran denomination, the “Evangelical Lutheran Church of America” (ELCA), passed recent measures in their national assembly to endorse homosexual marriage and allow the ordination of homosexual pastors in their church. (Side note: a remarkable thing occurred at the same time these measures were being passed on the convention floor in Minneapolis: without warning, a tornado briefly struck downtown Minneapolis, and caused a highly selective bit of damage…It knocked the cross off of the steeple on the ELCA church across from the convention center! You can see the picture and read one ELCA pastor’s reflections on it here: http://www.wordalone.org/nr/change-or-not.shtml ) Unfortunately, the news media typically did not make a distinction between this Lutheran church and several other Lutheran church bodies represented in America, that were not involved in and did not support this decision. Emmanuel Lutheran Church and Schools belongs to one of those church bodies not involved in the decision, the 2.4 million member church, The “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod” (LCMS).

Some have viewed this as another victory for “tolerance” and the open acceptance of gays within the church. They say the church is finally discarding “antiquated notions” that have no place in our enlightened, modern world. Others, including about a 1/3 minority within the ELCA that strongly opposed these measures, viewed these actions as a clear departure from God’s Word and 2,000 years of Christian consensus about an issue that was never “up for grabs” in the church. We do well to remember that homosexuality was not unknown at the time of the New Testament, but was widely practiced and accepted in the Greco-Roman world. So the New Testament was written under similar circumstances to what we experience today.

Sadly, the trend that lead to these actions began years ago when the ELCA was formed in a merger of three smaller Lutheran groups, around a weakened view on the authority of Holy Scripture. The LCMS, retains a high view of Scripture as inspired (God-breathed: 2 Tim. 3:16-17) and inerrant (without error and completely truthful: John 10:35b; 17:17). The Holy Bible is the authority for all our teaching and life, and is unchanging. While our own national church, The LCMS, The Lutheran Church in Canada, and other smaller groups have issued statements against these measures and are holding fast to the Bible—it’s important that we don’t assume that we would never be susceptible to similar trends and influences or question God’s Word.

Christians in the church will always face strong pressure to be conformed to the pattern of the world and wander from God’s Word, rather than to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). So watch out that we do not become like the Pharisee who prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11); or say our own prayer: “Thank God we’re not like them.” Rather, we too must confess our own sin, and especially the sin of disregarding God’s Word because of the pressures of the world, and instead pray: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). There is no place for superiority here: only grieving that our brothers and sisters have fallen away from the truth. So our call should be firm, loving, and urgent that they turn back from their error (Galatians 6:1).

The Bottom Line is that our church, The LCMS, must continue to hold the Biblical position that homosexuality is a sin, and that God’s design and intent for sexuality is between one man and one woman in marriage (see Mark 10:6-9 & 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Along with the second Bible verse referenced, we believe that homosexuality is a sin that can be repented of, forgiven, and left behind, just like any other sin. God wants redemption for every sinner, and that they would turn from their sin and live. Homosexuals need the same redemption from their sin as we do, and we cannot “relax one of the least of these commandments” of God, or teach others to do the same (Matthew 5:17-20). Giving approval to any sin—whether it is our own or that of the homosexual, is not loving—it is tempting someone to sin (Matt. 18:7). Rather, the love that Jesus showed to the sinner was to say this: “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17, for All Saints' Day. "Who are the Saints?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. A blessed All Saints’ Day to you, dear saints and children of God! Yes, you also are saints! Not because any of us “have what it takes” to be considered “saints,” but because Christ Jesus has washed and cleansed us by His blood, and we’re “holy ones” or saints in His eyes. Today we remember the saints that have gone before us in Jesus’ name, and we look at the passage from Revelation to see a heavenly vision, and answer the question, “Who are the Saints?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The first answer our reading gives to the question of “who are the saints?” is that the saints are believers from every nation, tribe, people and language. The beauty of a diverse and colorful heaven is portrayed, with believers from every nation represented. Considering this was written almost 2,000 years ago, it’s a pretty remarkable statement against racial prejudice, hatred, or bigotry. The apostle John, who wrote this book, couldn’t have been any clearer that heaven would include people of every people group. Nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. It covers us all. The Bible presents a sharp contrast to racism or exclusion of people of a different color, which was prevalent both in the ancient world and today. A passage like this teaches us that we ought to treat all people with love and respect.

Today we’ve grown accustomed to speaking of fellow human beings using the language of “races” in the plural. Even the word itself has a divisive tone to it. But in reality are we so different? Although we can look quite different on a surface level, there’s actually a remarkably small percentage of our DNA that makes up the differences that we call racial characteristics. For example, any two random people from around the world, even if they were from the same people group, would only have .2% genetic difference. But the actual amount of genetic difference that accounts for the so-called “racial characteristics” only makes up only 1/100th of 1%! Modern genetics have established that there really is only one race—the human race.

This is what the Bible has taught all along! All the nations, tribes, peoples and languages share one blood, and are the descendants of the one man Adam (Acts 17:26). This wonderful and delightful truth should help us realize that the so-called racial characteristics that people draw so much attention to, and often become a source of hatred, prejudice, or stereotyping, have nothing to do with our entrance into heaven. Believers in Christ from every people group on earth will join in worship around the heavenly throne of God. We’d do well to abandon the term “races” altogether, as both the Bible and science agree it’s meaningless, and instead acknowledge our commonality as creatures of God and members of one human family.

This vision of John’s reflects back to our life on earth, and transforms how we look at people of every nation, tribe, people and language. We must put away all prejudice, bigotry, and racism, and call on others to do the same. We must repeatedly bear witness to the truth that all people are created in the image of God and deserving of respect and dignity and justice. We see that the saints of heaven will come from all these nations, and that we will be—indeed already are—brothers and sisters in Christ with all who believe! Christ alone unites us across national, cultural, social, and lingual differences. Joins us together in one vast multitude that will throng around the throne of God and the Lamb in heaven—a thundering choir of singers belting out in glorious voices a heavenly anthem: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” The angels, the elders, and the four living creatures who ever-attend the throne of God will reply with the refrain, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” Your voices will join in that choir—our ears will ring with the glad praises of our God and King, and this multi-colored sea of redeemed and joyful faces will fall down in worship to the Almighty God and Redeemer.

This is the second truth our reading teaches about who the saints are: they’re the gathered believers from every nation that join in the eternal worship of God and the Lamb around the heavenly throne. Worship is central in heaven, just as worship is at the center of the Christians’ life on earth. Often we can become so focused on our numbers in worship—forgetting the biblical truth that whether we’re only two or three in number, or 100 or 1,000—we’re worshipping with a multitude of saints and angels in heaven. We stand in an invisible assembly of worshippers, uniting heaven and earth in the Divine Service.

What else do we learn from the eternal worship of the saints in heaven? Remember their heavenly anthem? Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Salvation isn’t our work or making—it’s God’s work, together with Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It’s the presence of God and the marvelous truth of His unmerited love that affects their posture of worship—they fall on their face before the throne of God. We’re just as much gathered in God’s presence, although invisibly, when we worship and when He is bodily present among us in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The reverence with which the holy saints, elders, living creatures, and angels bow before the throne shows the holiness of God and how supreme His glory is. He’s unapproachable in His radiance (1 Tim 6:16). This is the same posture of reverence that many took before Christ Jesus when He dwelt on earth, falling on their face in worship. Remember that God alone can be worshipped, and this reminds us that Jesus is true God. Later in the book of Revelation, John fell on his face to worship an angel, but the angel quickly corrected him and reminded him that he was just a fellow servant like John, and that God alone was to be worshipped (Rev. 19:10).

The anthem of the saints, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb” also informs us of the central truth about who the saints are, and how they became saints. While John is viewing all this magnificent scene of heaven, one of the elders asks if he knows who these people are, clothed in white. John replies, “Sir, you know.” And the glad answer is “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” If you know nothing else or remember nothing else about what it means to be a saint—remember this. We’re made saints because we’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb. We aren’t saints because we’ve earned it or led such virtuous lives that God awarded us. The white robe that dresses the saints is the purity, the holiness, the innocence that God dresses believers with. Not because of their own deeds, but because their robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus’ blood is a cleansing, forgiving stream that purifies us from all sin. He poured out His blood on the cross, becoming the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sin of the world. It’s on His account, and nothing else, that we can be called saints! Yes! You are saints!

And at last, to undeserving saints on earth and in heaven, to you and me and all believers from a multitude of nations, is given eternal comfort and rest. John’s vision of heaven’s peace and comfort is a sharp contrast to the world of suffering, violence, prejudice, and strife that we live in. There are times of tribulation and suffering in Christian’s life where we’ll wonder if it’s all worth it. Or if we have the strength to go on in life. The elder told John that these saints he sees passed through the “great tribulation.” Tribulation is an intense trial or hardship that brings our faith to a great test. It can take all kinds of forms. Times when we’re weighed down with sorrow, crushed with grief, or our body physically is beset with pain or illness. A time when there seems no justice or explanation for the evil that afflicts you. We sometimes need this heavenly vision to be reminded that there is a place of rest and healing for all the evils that surround us in life.

But in that multitude from every nation stand the faithful believers through all the ages. People who have endured every hardship and pain imaginable, who’ve died of martyrdom, disease, accidents, died in infancy or old age, abortion, murder, suicide. All the various causes of death. There wasn’t always an explanation for why it happened, many times death was just senseless. Sometimes it was a specific persecution for faith in Christ. But all those saints stand as witnesses to the fact that they’ve made it through the great tribulation and arrived safely in heaven. By faith in God they arrived on the other side. Saints who knew their Savior, who were washed clean by His blood, and saw beyond their earthly circumstances to the heavenly promise. They have arrived to serve God day and night, and to be sheltered, to be protected by His presence. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This speaks to our most basic human needs—hunger, thirst, shelter and health. At
last we’ll be beyond the reach of death and it’s grasping claws. No remnant of the sinful world, no lingering evil will assault us, but we’ll be hidden in the perfect shade of our heavenly Father, and guarded by Christ, the Good Shepherd, who will refresh us with His living water. Perhaps one of the most beautiful verses in all of Scripture—God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Tear by tear, God will erase all the sorrow of this life, and bring us His merciful healing and love, to assure us that our warfare is ended, and the victory is His and it is ours. And so we’ll stand with the saints, waving palm branches in victory. In the multi-colored throng of believers who’ve been marked as saints by the blood of Christ and delivered to heaven by the victory of our Triumphant God and King to whom belongs all the glory and all the credit. The saints stand as the prize of His victory, and the recipients of His eternal peace and comfort. Rejoice today with the saints who have gone before, and stand firm in the faith until we cross that heavenly portal through the blood of Jesus Christ the Lamb. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Why is racism not in line with the truth of the Gospel? What does the Bible teach about humanity that combats the idea of racism? Acts 17:26; Genesis 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 15:45; Col. 3:11 See also http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/nab/are-there-different-races

2. What racial prejudices or stereotypes have you been guilty of holding? How does John’s vision of heaven transform how we must look at our fellow human beings? What does it teach us about who the saints are?

3. What does John’s vision teach us about the importance of worship? What does the posture of a worshipper convey about themselves and about God? Rev. 7:11; 1 Tim. 6:16; Heb. 12:28-29; Matt. 2:11; 14:33; John 4:20ff

4. What is the central truth about who the saints are, and how we become saints? Reread Rev. 7:14. Heb. 12:22-24; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Col. 1:11-14.

5. Describe the heavenly comfort that awaits the saints. How does this vision help us in this life? What will be gone, and what will be our heavenly provision? Isaiah 25:6-9; John 4:10; 6:37-39. What does the presence of all the saints in heaven remind us of? (Think of Rev. 7:14 again).