Monday, March 29, 2010

Sermon on Luke 23, for Palm Sunday. "Presumed Innocent!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon text is Luke 23, the narrative of Jesus’ passion, but I want to re-read one section from verse 39-43:

39One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, where two criminals hung together with Jesus, are discussing His punishment and guilt or innocence, reminds me of a scene from a movie where an innocent man goes to prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. Though he had at one point the motive and intention to do it. When he arrives in prison, one inmate asks what crime he committed to get locked up like this. He professes his innocence, to which the inmates respond in a chorus of laughter. One by one, each of the inmates chime in that they too are innocent—in fact everyone in the prison is innocent! They all jokingly supply the excuses for why they got locked up. The inmate who first asked the question confesses wryly that he’s the only guilty one in the whole prison. The prisoners facetiously presumed they were innocent, while of course all of them were guilty. And they all presumed the guilt of their new inmate.

In such a setting as a prison, it’d be natural to presume the guilt of those inside. In the setting of a government execution, that was considered the worst penalty assigned for crimes in the Roman empire, it would’ve been natural for all the onlookers to presume the guilt of the condemned—those who hung on the crosses. At the crucifixion of Jesus there was a strange mix of perceptions of innocence or guilt. At first, both criminals crucified with Jesus mocked and ridiculed Him (Matt. 27:44). As the hours wore on, one of those who first thought Jesus was guilty began to believe in Jesus’ innocence. The second thief recognized that a terrible injustice was being done to an innocent man. He finally rebuked the first, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Strange that in this scene of capital punishment, where it was natural to presume guilt, he identified Jesus innocence.

But he wasn’t the only one. Pontius Pilate, the governor and the one who finally permitted the verdict of death to fall on Jesus, also said three times that Jesus was innocent. He found no guilt in Jesus—none of the charges made against Him had any basis, nor did Jesus deserve death. Pontius Pilate said with his own mouth that this was an innocent man, and asked that they prove what evil Jesus had done. He saw the injustice of what he was doing, and yet the pressure of the people caused him to crumble. First he tried to escape the blame for such an obvious injustice by passing the responsibility off to Herod’s jurisdiction. We’re all familiar with trying to pass the buck when we don’t want to face a difficult decision. But even Herod regarded Jesus as innocent, or at least harmless, as he sent Jesus back to Pilate, after mocking and ridiculing Him. Finally Pilate tried to maintain his innocence by washing his hands of the matter, trying to presume his own innocence, while this was anything but the truth.

Even the crowds had no answer to Pilate, when he weakly pleaded for them to show what guilt or evil Jesus had done to deserve death. Instead they just shouted and shouted for His crucifixion, and mob rules won the day. Their insistent cries overpowered Pilate’s weak integrity and caved his will to their criminal demands. Others too recognized Jesus’ innocence—crowds of men and women following Jesus, mourning this injustice. The centurion who stood watch over Jesus’ death also professed Jesus’ innocence. He saw all that had taken place, how Jesus forgave His persecutors, how He remained silent in the face of such mockery, and how the sky turned dark at midday while He hung on the cross for the final three hours of His life. Seeing all this, the centurion praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” The crowds who saw the spectacle also ran home, beating their breasts. Only then did some begin to understand the great evil that had been done in condemning this innocent man.

Finally, even one or two of the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that had decreed Jesus to be worthy of death—even these recognized Jesus’ innocence. Joseph of Arimathea, did not consent to their decision, and he boldly took responsibility to give Jesus an honorable burial in his own unused tomb. Surrounded by people who saw His innocence, Jesus nevertheless died a criminal’s death, while false accusers presumed their own innocence, and proclaimed His guilt. Some like Pilate and Herod, knew his innocence, but permitted the injustice. Others knew his innocence only through witnessing His death and the miraculous events that surrounded it. People were divided for and against Jesus’ innocence. People were divided between presuming their own innocence, and acknowledging their own guilt.

We can fall into the same traps. We can become like those who presumed their own innocence of the matter, and looked at Jesus in judgment. After all, don’t we live in a society where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty? How often do we live like those inmates in the movie I described, all professing our own innocence? In countless situations we presume our own innocence. We get into an argument with someone, and all our effort is spent trying to prove our own innocence instead of working toward a solution or seeing the other side of things. Pridefully presuming our own innocence, we fail to admit our own mistakes and misunderstandings. Often the blame is shared. Yet when we’re confronted with some sin we’ve committed, we cling to the act or behavior, and try to defend it by rationalizations or excuses. We find other people who seem worse than us, and so justify our behavior. But aren’t we just living in denial? And what will that gain us?

In human relationships, from situation to situation, it may be that we are guilty of certain things and innocent of others. But on a much deeper level, considering the total of all our thoughts, words, and actions, we are all guilty—totally guilty before our God. So will we presume our own innocence before God, while the innocent Son of God hangs condemned on the cross? The 2nd thief provides a correction to our mistaken behaviors and words, and our presumption of innocence. His words call us to recognize the just condemnation of our sins. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” While we do not hang on a cross next to Jesus, the just penalty for our sins is death, no matter what we try to do to deny it. We spend time trying to prove ourselves innocent before God when we’re not. And here the innocent substitute for our sins is condemned as guilty...taking our 'rap.'

So first we need to admit our sins, as that thief did, and to associate ourselves with Jesus. When the disciple Peter was accused of being an associate of Jesus, he wanted to disavow his connection the innocent Jesus, to clear himself. In fact the exact opposite was needed. To clear ourselves, to actually have true innocence, that stands not just before other human beings, but especially before God—we have to attach ourselves to Christ Jesus. When that thief, who justly deserved his present and eternal punishment, confessed his sin and asked: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”—he was immediately granted forgiveness of all his sins, and Jesus gladly responded: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Instantly his fate changed from eternal death to eternal life. While others were greedily casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, this thief cast his lot in with Jesus, and reaped eternal rewards from the death that Jesus was suffering before his eyes.
If we wish to be innocent, we must forgo any claims of our own innocence, and hold tightly to the innocence of Jesus, as the Word sets Him before our eyes, crucified. We’ll doubtless have to swallow our pride and give up the rationalizations and excuses for sin, and admit our guilt. No other innocence measures up or matters. Only the innocence of Jesus will count for our salvation—and it’s full and complete. Covering every sin, Jesus’ innocence alone grants us entrance into paradise.

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:
Listen to audio at:

1. Who among the onlookers and participants in Jesus’ crucifixion identified His innocence? What helped each of them to realize this? What discussion transpired between the two thieves? How did the attitude of the second change as the crucifixion wore on?

2. How did Pontius Pilate acknowledge Jesus innocence? What did he do to try to maintain his own innocence and shirk responsibility? What caused him to give in to injustice? When have we seen injustice but taken no action? What are some concrete ways we can take action against injustice?

3. What lead the centurion and the crowds to recognize Jesus’ innocence? How were people divided around Jesus?

4. We often presume our own innocence when confronted with our sins, in arguments and otherwise. Can you think of some examples? How does this help or hinder relationships?

5. How does the 2nd thief’s statements from the cross correct our tendency to presume our innocence before God? Who is really guilty? Who is really innocent? What is our just reward?

6. How is our fate changed if we cast our lot in with Jesus? How does He grant us His innocence?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 4:1-6, Lent 6, "I need this...and this...and this..."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about how people react to evil in the world, and doubt God’s existence. We talked about how Christ crucified rescues us from the darkness of our sins, and how the caring community that we are in Christ helps us to share our burdens and encourage one another. Today I invite you to reflect on how we thirst in this world, and how that thirst often goes unquenched. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I thirst.” Continuing our Lenten meditations, we come to these words of Jesus from the cross. “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of a hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips” (John 19:28-29). Hearing these words, you can imagine how this sermon might begin. Perhaps a literal description of the tortures our Lord endured on the cross and his excruciating thirst. Or maybe an opening illustration about a hot day and hard work. Something to get you to remember what it was like to be really thirsty. Instead, I have a simple question: What do you thirst for? What do we thirst for?

Am I trying to trap you? You’ve heard enough sermons to see where this is going. We shouldn’t “thirst” for things. We shouldn’t want things. But that’s not where I’m going; this is no trap! I’m taking certain things for granted here this evening. I’m assuming that I’m talking to the Christian church, those redeemed by the blood shed by our Savior on the cross, those whom the New Testament calls “the body of Christ.” I’m talking to those who know the promise of an end to suffering because Christ died for us. I’m talking to you. I’m talking to you who fit the description of 1 Peter 4:1-2: “Since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

I hear Peter calling us to “arm” ourselves with the same thinking of Christ. I hear Peter saying we’re done with sin but I know we still struggle with sin. So tonight let’s think about ourselves as that body of Christ, as sinners but saved sinners who are already armed with the same manner of thinking as Christ. With this in mind, what do we thirst for? We thirst for justice, for healing, for an end to suffering. We thirst for a stronger economy, for those without work to find jobs, to be able to provide for their families. We thirst for safety, for those in Haiti to get the supplies and protection they need. We thirst for an end to abortion, slavery, and an end to sin, death, and the power of the devil. One look at our weekly prayer list will show you all those whose healing we thirst for.

By now we should be at the part of the sermon where I’m supposed to turn the corner. I could take a moment to look closer at the Gospel lesson. I could point out to you that John lets us know this drink was given to Jesus in order to “fulfill the Scriptures.” We could look back at the psalm Jesus fulfilled, Psalm 69:21. It says “…for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink…” I could tell you that just as God promised a brief release from suffering for Jesus in the form of a drink on the cross, so in the same way we can know that God will meet our needs. This is the part of the sermon where I’m supposed to tell you that your thirst will always be quenched as well. Well, I’m not going to say it, because it’s not true.

We thirst, and sometimes there is just no relief for our thirst. Sometimes there is no cure for the disease. Sometimes no new job comes. Sometimes the house is foreclosed. Sometimes there is no water to quench the thirst. It’s like the story we heard last week of the children buried under rubble in Haiti. Two of them were rescued, but one of them died. And do you remember what Sabrina told reporters? Before her brother died he asked her for water. “We couldn’t find any water,” she said. “He asked us for water on Wednesday, on Thursday and Friday. He died of dehydration.” Sometimes we thirst, and nothing comes to meet the need.

Do we have anything to say to the “Sabrinas” of the world? Oh sure, we church people have countless phrases to call upon in these situations, phrases we use so often they can even become meaningless in our own ears. How could they possibly help? Try telling a “Gospel cliché” to Sabrina and see what she has to say! In the face of such horror I’m supposed to point to a man suffering on a cross? That doesn't make sense. Foolishness! I’m supposed to have something to quench her thirst? Well, I don’t. I don’t because I'm empty. I’m really no different from you. I thirst too.
I thirst…but still it’s my job to stand here and tell you one of those “Gospel clichés”… something like…Jesus lives… That may be what you’re expecting. And at this point, it is exactly what I’m going to do, because that is the most important thing I can do. Jesus lives. It is the only news that can be good now. Jesus lives. But is that enough? But if this good news—this Gospel—that Jesus lives doesn’t seem like enough, perhaps it’s because we don’t realize what we need. Let me say that again. If this good news—this Gospel—that Jesus lives doesn’t seem like enough, perhaps it’s because we don’t realize what we need.

All too often we live in the moment. We live in the midst of whatever suffering we’re currently in, and can’t see what we really need. We focus all our attention on alleviating the suffering right now. We want an end to that suffering. Jesus, thirsting on the cross, would come to an end of his suffering. And when he died he paid for the sin which has brought so much suffering into the world and into our lives. But an end to suffering is not enough! Even if the pain is numbed, the wound remains. What we need is healing. And that is the promise we see in Christ’s resurrection. Jesus lives! And because he lives, we too shall live. With his resurrection Jesus brings more than an end to our suffering. He brings us the promise of a day where all will be put right. All will be healed. All will be made whole. All the things that hurt us and make us something less than God created us to be will be no more. There will come a time when death will be swallowed up and God himself will wipe every tear away from our eyes. End of suffering, indeed! That is our goal. That is what we truly need. Not just for the pain to end, but to be healed, to be made whole.

This is the hope which keeps us going in the midst of suffering. This is the certainty which arms us, as Peter says in our text, with the “same way of thinking as Christ.” But this doesn't alleviate the suffering here and now. We still thirst. Must we wait with parched throats for this final day? Will our suffering never be alleviated now? By no means! God is daily intervening. In countless ways God is indeed giving us little sips of water so we can endure throughout this drought. Help may not always come in this life, but because Christ lives we live in hope. Kiki and Sabrina may have lost their brother, but they were both rescued. In fact, that is one of the reasons why we are here. We are the body of Christ in this hurting and suffering world. We are often the instruments God uses to alleviate suffering and bring hope in the here and now, as we wait for the day when final healing will come. We are the ones who wipe tears from the eyes of others as we wait for the day when sorrow will end. We bring the sip of water as we wait for the day when the drought will end. As we wait for the day… the day when the source of living water will return and we will thirst no more. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Copyright © 2010, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. Permission granted for congregational use. Any republication or redistribution requires written permission from Concordia Seminary.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sermon on Luke 20:9-20, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Costly Grace"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The parable that Jesus tells today goes by various names: the parable of the vineyard, the parable of the wicked tenants or vinedressers, or as one author suggests: the parable of the noble vineyard owner and his son. However it’s named, the parable is one that speaks a shocking case of rejection, and the even more astonishing response to that rejection. Jesus told this parable shortly after His Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. This was followed soon after with His own rejection by the chief priests and scribes, who were infuriated by His cleansing of the temple and the authority of His teaching. Today we’ll see what His parable told of rejection and also of the mercy and long-suffering of God. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Jesus spoke this parable, He was borrowing language from Isaiah chapter 5, a “love song” about a vineyard. The vineyard is identified as the house of Israel, and the Lord carefully planted it and cleared it of stones. The song talks about how God looked for the vineyard to produce grapes, but it produced wild grapes. It explains that God looked for justice and righteousness, but instead found bloodshed and an outcry. Jesus borrows the language of this song, and adds some new details, like the vineyard being rented out to tenants or farmers, and that a share of the fruit is expected of them, rather than the vines themselves. In both the song and the parable, the Lord expects to receive fruit from His vineyard, and both times He receives none. In the song, He utterly destroys the vineyard; in the parable, He destroys the tenants but not the vineyard, but leases the vineyard out to new tenants. In any case, it was clear to Jesus’ listeners that the parable was directed at them—specifically those who rejected Him.

Today the Christian church can see itself as the new tenants to which the vineyard has been entrusted. Gentiles and Jews who believe in Jesus are the church, and we’re like a vineyard that God has planted, and expects to receive fruit from. We’re just as much in need of hearing this parable and applying it to ourselves, as were the original Jewish audience of Jesus. The problem of the original wicked tenants in the parable was that they ignored the master’s ownership of the vineyard. They even tried to assume ownership when they thought they’d killed off the last surviving heir of the property, and could acquire squatter’s rights. But before that, they felt no obligation to produce or share the fruit with the owner. This same danger exists for us. That we’d presume ownership of the vineyard, and neglect to bear the expected fruit for our master. We live off the benefits of the vineyard, but give nothing in return for the master.

What sort of “fruit” are we talking about anyway? When John the Baptist similarly confronted the people who came insincerely to baptism, he told them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). He told the tax collectors to stop their dishonest practices of skimming off the top. He told the soldiers to stop practicing extortion. He told the crowds to share their clothing and food with those who had none. In other words, they were to practice doing good works in keeping with their repentance (Acts 26:20). They weren’t to continue in the sinful practices that they were professing to leave behind. In the same way, our lives are to show the evidence of repentance. We’re called to struggle against our sin, and avoid from open and willful participation in sin. Knowing that we daily will have sins to confess, nevertheless we don’t use that as an excuse to give in to temptation or to continue sinning. Just as the vineyard was taken from the wicked tenants, so also we could lose God’s grace if we continually abuse it.

But we shouldn’t think that the owner of the vineyard—that the Lord of the church is somehow capricious or a harsh taskmaster. In fact, the focus of the parable is really on the nobility and patience of the owner. The parable tells how the owner went away for a long while, and then sent a first, second, and third servant to go collect the fruit from the tenants. Their reaction is an escalating sequence of violence, as they beat the first and sent him away empty-handed; beat the second and on top of that, treated him shamefully; the third one they wounded and cast out. The word for wounded there is “traumatized.” The last was the most severely abused. This was a clear reminder to the audience about how God had sent the prophets to them again and again to warn them to turn away from sin, but how the Israelites had ignored, persecuted, and even killed the prophets (2 Chron. 36:15-16; Heb. 11:32-40).

So what are we to expect the owner’s response will be? He was already remarkably generous in giving them a second and third opportunity, instead of sending in troops to go and destroy the violent men who had abused his servants. By the time the third servant returned empty-handed, we’re expected to hear the owner’s plans to crush these evildoers. But the climax of the story is when the owner is faced with a crucial decision. The question is how will he deal with the anger generated by the outrageous mistreatment of his servants? Will he allow his enemies to dictate the nature of his response? He’s in the position of power and authority, and swift retaliation is the expected response. But is violence the only response to violence and the anger that injustice causes?

Contrary to all expectations, the owner makes this response: “What shall I do? I’ll send my beloved son; perhaps they’ll respect him.” What could he be thinking? The owner’s hope is that the tenants will be moved to righteous behavior by the incredible vulnerability the owner shows by sending his beloved son, alone and unarmed. Perhaps there was some shred of honor and decency that would be stirred within them. The implication is that if they would receive the son honorably, and give to the owner their due fruits, that he would grant them amnesty. He showed unbelievable patience and willingness to forgive by offering the possibility to overlook their mistreatment of his servants, and accept the late fruits. When he said: “perhaps they will respect him,” the situation is describing more than just respect. They’re expected to actually feel ashamed of their actions, and their sense of honor is to be reawakened by his noble gesture. He’s actually taking a huge risk, being willing to undergo even greater loss than he has so far, to give them one last opportunity for grace.

This is the patience and long-suffering of God, that He’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6-7; Joel 2:13). God sent His beloved Son Jesus to His beloved vineyard of Israel, to receive the fruits of justice and righteousness, the obedience to His commandments and the sincere worship and loyalty of His tenants. God looks to His church for the same fruits of repentance from our sins, obedience to God and worship. He has given us great and many gifts and blessings. Will our hearts be stirred by the nobility of God’s sacrifice in sending Jesus, and receive His offered amnesty? Will we take the olive branch of peace extended to us by receiving the Son? Will we honor Him and give Him the fruits of His vineyard by repenting of our sin and seeking to do better?

The response Jesus received when He came was anything but a warm welcome. His fate was worse than the prophets who prepared the way before Him. He became the climax in the escalating sequence of violence against the Father’s servants. The costly and unexpected demonstration of the Father’s love and grace was repaid with the murder of His Son. The tenants turned away even the owner’s final offer of amnesty. The real climax of the story of Jesus was when He was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem. There, the Son of God was thrown out of His Father’s vineyard, and crucified. Finally, their fate would be like in the parable, when the owner would come to destroy those tenants and transfer the vineyard to others. At this, the listeners responded, “Surely not!” Where they astonished that the landowner would take the property from them and lease it to others? Can you imagine how you would respond if this had happened to you when trying to collect rent on a rental property, and you or your agent was treated this way? Would you continue to lease it to such people? Jesus’ hearers had too long carried the false sense of ownership instead of seeing themselves as tenants, and were shocked to think that they would lose the place they inhabited for so long. But it was their rejection of the owner’s son that finally destroyed them. Those who received Jesus, both Jew and Gentile alike, became the new tenants of the vineyard.

Today as then, there are no tenants who hold a privileged place, there are none who will not be expected to give the master their share of fruit. The vineyard will be productive, for God is a master planter and His Word is not ineffective. The question is whether we will be faithful tenants, and give back the fruit to our Lord. Will we take all of God’s gifts and forgiveness for granted, and live indifferently? Will we test His patience to see how many times we can get away with refusing His call to bear fruit? That famous bible passage found throughout the Old Testament that says God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” is depicted in the patience and mercy of the noble landowner. It also says that He will forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin. But it goes on to say that He will “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). The parable demonstrates the incredible lengths to which God has gone, and the costly sacrifice of His Son—all to redeem us. And He will forgive our sins if we seek His pardon. But for those who push away even this offer of amnesty, there is nothing left but to face the reward of their rejection. On such as these, their guilt will remain.

Ultimately this parable is about the acceptance or rejection of God’s Son. We know God’s Son Jesus will return one day. Though He was killed by the original tenants, He rose from the dead. Though they schemed for His inheritance, they failed to get it. Rather, the inheritance of the vineyard—the sharing in the rich harvest of grapes and the fine wine—that inheritance is prepared for those who accept the master’s Son. His death on the cross seals the last will and testament of the Son, guaranteeing the inheritance to those who believe in Him. So gracious is our God, that He has even forgiven the times we refused Him in the past. But now He’s calling us to faithfulness. He’s even given us the gift of His Holy Spirit—the “miracle-gro” to make us bear much fruit. For when we can see the great love of God for us, we’re moved to greater love and service of Him. We’re moved to worship and honor the God who extends such amnesty to sinners like us, and who continues to hold out the offer of mercy to us. Our natural response by faith is like fruit growing from a healthy vine—it doesn’t need to be forced, but comes from being rooted in the Word and bathed in the Son-shine of God’s love. Bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and we seek the pardon and forgiveness of our Lord who truly is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. 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:
Listen to audio at:

1. Read Isaiah chapter 5, the “song of the vineyard” which shows the Old Testament backdrop for today’s parable, that would have been familiar to Jesus’ audience. What was the vineyard? Who was the landlord? What major adaptation to the Old Testament story did Jesus make?

2. What fruit did the owner look for? Isaiah 5:2,7; Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20). Who do the servants the owner sent represent? 2 Chron. 36:15-16; Hebrews 11:32-40).

3. Why were the Jews surprised that their vineyard would be taken away? What is the danger of complacency and indifference as Christians?

4. How can we share with God the fruit expected of us? What are the fruits of the Spirit? Galatians 5:22-24; 1 Cor. 12:1-11

5. What is the response we would expect of an owner or landlord who had such wicked tenants and they had refused him a share of his crops/rent 3 times? What’s the surprise of the owner’s response? How did this happen in real life through Jesus?

6. How does the owner/God embody long-suffering and patience? Exodus 34:6-7; Joel 2:13. What costly risk did God take to win our loyalty and faithful service to Him? What is left if we finally reject even this final offer of amnesty?

7. How then shall we live?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 1:6-9, for Lent 5, "I can't believe in a God who would..."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about how we are called to be a caring community in Christ, and not isolated from one another. This week I invite you to reflect on how as a community in Christ we face the difficulties and tragedies in life that would tempt us to despair, rather than to hope. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The word ‘abyss’ describes a bottomless pit—a hole of enveloping darkness. A fitting word to describe the yawning darkness that swallowed Jesus on the day of His crucifixion and death. He hung on the cross, like a slender strand of rope suspending the great weight of humanity’s sins, a rope hanging down from heaven. He was our slender strand of hope, the last connection from earth to heaven, and our sins were an impossibly heavy burden, straining, pulling, dragging Him down into the abyss. Shrill cries of mockery dared Him to come off the cross to prove He could save Himself; the sky turned to darkness around Him. At this black hour, the light would not shine on those who “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19b). The fierce cup of God’s wrath against sin was poured out on Him, as He suffered, giving rise to His desperate cry into the abyss: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoed in the gloom—unanswered. How could God leave Him like this? How could He trust in a God who would abandon Him in this greatest hour of need?

Jump forward to January 12, 2010, the island of Haiti. Odinel, a mother of six, was cooking dinner while five of her children studied and played on the apartment floor. In one moment, an ordinary day turned into chaos, as great convulsions of the earth collapsed the building. Stunned but alive, Odinel scrambled to find her children and saw with horror that a pile of concrete and rubble lay where her children had been working. She screamed for her children, helpless to dig through the mountain of rubble, and certain they were dead. The silence of the abyss echoed back her cries, unanswered.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti and left some 230,000 dead—and was followed soon after by the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that killed over 700 in Chile. The darkness of these disasters have left the world staring into the abyss. For a brief time, entertaining ourselves to distraction was cut short by the brutality and darkness of the world, pressing in on all sides. While events like these and 9/11 have a way of freezing us in our tracks on a national scale, smaller daily events would seem to press hopelessness on us individually. From unemployment to family tragedies, from car accidents to illness, we cry for help! We cry to God in prayer. When frustrations and sorrow climb, and rescue doesn’t seem near, often we’ve gotten the same answer that Jesus did—silence. Does God ignore our prayer? Do we hear laughing voices like Jesus did, “He trusted in God; let God deliver Him!” (Matt. 27:43a).

As time wore on, Jesus waited in the darkness—when will the suffering end? How long will God remain silent? Everyone around Jesus had reason to abandon faith because the pressure to despair was immense. What good was it for him to patiently wait any longer? What had faith in God led Him to? Now was the time to give up! No one could fault him for it! But stubbornly, defiantly, Jesus pressed onward. He did the unthinkable—he resolved to patiently wait on his Father in heaven. Foolishly, some mocker would say, Jesus threw himself into the hands of his God. Foolishly, a scoffer would ridicule, Jesus continued to bless and love those who stood against him. Following the way of love, he persisted till the end and refused to back down. He wouldn’t be deterred; he threw himself headlong into the destructive path of death itself. And to the despair of those who stayed and watched, death didn’t yield—it pushed forward unwaveringly, crushing this Jesus under its feet.

Back to Haiti, buried under six stories of broken building, three of Odinel’s five children were still alive, trapped in a pocket beneath the rubble. They amazingly escaped the crushing collapse of the building, but were trapped with no food or water. For days they cried out into the blackness with no sight or sound of outside life or rescue. Kiki and Sabrina, brother and sister, waited helplessly with their younger brother, who cried out for water for three despairing days, before succumbing to dehydration. Kiki and Sabrina clung to each other in the darkness, waiting…hoping against hope that there would be rescue. They struggled not to give into despair as they found solace in each other—strengthened by the fact that they did not wait alone.

We too watch and wait in a world where death, disease, warfare, and suffering are all clamoring to take away our hope. Give up, give in, lose heart, lose hope. Will you continue to look to God in hope or will you walk away in despair? Alone, you’ll eventually fall into despair, but with others there’s a chance for hope. Like Kiki and Sabrina, it’s important that we face the harshness of reality in the company of one another. If you and I try to go it alone, then we won’t make it—we’re simply not strong enough. Peter’s first letter was written to Christians facing persecution, people tempted to give up on God. 1 Peter 1:6-9 says, “Now for a little time you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine.” He wrote about facing despair as part of a community in Christ. Without community gathered around the cross the task ahead would be too much. When we stare death and despair in the face, refusing to buckle, we need each other. The hymn writer put it this way. “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer” (LSB 915, v. 4).

As the Savior of the world hung on the cross, that slender strand of hope hanging over the abyss, death finally lunged forward and swallowed Him whole—the rope snapping and Jesus plummeting into the dark depths. All seemed to end in failure. No answers to His cries, no deliverance. It seemed the mockers were right. In a world where the strong conquer, he had been weak. In a world where wisdom ruled, he had been a fool. In a world where death had the final say, he was dead. This dark and unforgiving world once again asserted its strength. But as it pressed down relentlessly on this weak and seemingly foolish Jesus, its iron grip began to slip. As He fell in death to the bottomless depths of His grave—three ticks on the calendar and He went off like a depth charge, exploding the power of sin, death and the devil. Suddenly life came rocketing up from the bottomless pit, and Jesus sprang victorious from the grave! His foolishness in succumbing to death proved to be true wisdom, and His weakness proved true strength! With the resurrected life of Jesus we now have a firm anchor lodged in heaven, and He’s lowered that lifeline to earth, and is pulling us up arm over arm. Life by life, as Christians die in faith, He pulls them up that lifeline He created through His cross and resurrection.

One week after the Haiti earthquake, Kiki and Sabrina’s aunt happened to be searching for belongings in the family apartment. Startled by muffled cries that emerged from the rubble, she excitedly began to pry at the rubble with a crowbar. A unit of 20 American rescue workers from New York and Virginia, some experienced from the disaster on 9/11, moved in to help. After four hours of digging and cutting, they miraculously broke through to Kiki and Sabrina. Life-giving arms reached down from above, into their black abyss, and pulled the two surviving children to safety. After 8 days in grueling conditions with no food or water, they were given a joyfully tear-filled reunion with their mother Odinel.

In countless stories like Kiki and Sabrina’s, we’re reminded that our natural understanding of wisdom and foolishness, despair and hope, strength and weakness, is turned upside down in Jesus the Crucified. The insignificant and humble ways of faith, hope, and love are shown in Him to be God’s way. The dark world around us continues to mock our foolish hope but our assurance is that faith in Jesus is nothing short of the lifeline carrying us up to heaven from our grave. It’s nothing less than having Jesus’ life-giving arms reaching down and pulling us out of our abyss. As Peter wrote: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). Though you do not see God, you can be certain that your God, the Father of Jesus, acts on the other side of death, on the other side of the abyss. The eyes of faith, given by the Spirit of Jesus, reveal that the true God of this world is found in the midst of the fearful abyss—our God resides in the crucified Jesus. You would be a fool to believe in a God like that—a God you cannot see, a God on the other side of death! Yeah, you would be a fool, just like Jesus. “You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Amen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32; for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "Embrace for the Lost"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The story of the prodigal or lost son is probably one of the most familiar parables Jesus taught. A son rejects his living father as dead, wants to cash out his inheritance now, and run off with the money to party and live life to the fullest. The parable is about that ever-so-difficult homecoming when the lost son returned broken and empty-handed to beg for food and a place to stay from the father he’d disowned. Today we’ll consider how the father and the older brother each reacted. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The lost son was lost when he squandered all his father’s inheritance in wild living. Then he returned to his home and to his father, but when he arrives, in another way he’s still lost. He doesn’t know his own father. So he comes on the grounds of his own merits. But he realizes that he’s shot any merits he’s had to oblivion. He’s a lost cause if ever there was one. He has no grounds or basis for readmission to the house. He’d every right to expect that he’d be regarded as an outcast and one who’s disowned by the family. He’d decided to count his father as dead to himself, so that he could claim his share of the inheritance. He’d every right to expect that he’d be regarded as dead to the family. So he comes to enter the household on the grounds of being a servant. The lowest position in the house, to plead for simple necessities of food, shelter and water. He thought he could work for his father to earn his keep, and be treated as a servant.

Now there was something right about his approach to his father. He came in humility and sorrow over what he’d done. It was a real offense against heaven and against his father that he couldn’t repair or undo. We don’t have any ground or basis for admission to our Father’s house on our own merits. He knew that the sacrifice that God accepts is a broken spirit—a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise (Ps. 51). It’s right that we approach God in true brokenness over our sin, acknowledging an utter dependence and need for His mercy. We shouldn’t be indifferent to our sin, as if God shouldn’t mind anyway, and come back “on airs” thinking that God owed us anything. So in this way, the prodigal’s approach to his father was correct. True repentance of heart was necessary.

But there was a second aspect about the approach of the prodigal that was mistaken. He was mistaken in underestimating the capacity of love and the forgiveness of his father. He knew his father wasn’t a stingy man or a slave-driver. He knew that even the lowest members of the household had more than enough food. No one was starving—no one was shorted their necessities. But he couldn’t imagine his father’s capacity for love being so great. He only thought he could earn his way into a basement-level position where he could exist forgotten and unnoticed, but at least alive and well-fed. How many people have the same longing for God and His goodness, but feel themselves so unworthy that they think God could never love such a sinner as them? We underestimate God’s capacity for love and forgiveness.

And oh! How sweetly mistaken he was about his father’s love! He couldn’t have imagined that the one who owed him not one shred—the one whom the son had insulted, betrayed, and considered as dead—that this father would cast aside all sense of dignity and the bearing of a man of wealth and respect…and come running to his son for a full-on tackle of love. What tears of surprise and joy must have flowed from father and son as they hugged and kissed that day. And to think that you and I are that prodigal! We’re lost and wandering children whom our Father has welcomed home in a loving embrace…shattering any doubts about God’s love and forgiveness for us—even had we gravely dishonored him and wandered away. He speaks tenderly to us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Is. 43:1b). We are caught in the embrace of our Father—the embrace for the lost.
God doesn’t make us cling to the “edges of mercy”—even if we think we can beg for nothing more. We don’t live on the margins of His love, looking in to the warmth and glow of the household. You know how Ebenezer Scrooge looked longingly through the window of Tiny Tim’s home in the movie the Christmas Carol? Longing to participate in the love of the family inside? God pulls us to the center of His love and mercy for us, and fully embraces us with His love. The Father prepares the best celebration for us. Did you know that heaven throws a party when a single sinner turns to God?! The angels rejoice over every lost sinner that repents.

But what about that older son? He was coming in from the field when he heard the music and dancing. He’d labored long in the field for his father with loyalty. He wasn’t so insolent and disrespectful as to demand his share of the inheritance to cash out and spend on wild living. He was moderate and respectful and carried out his duties. But he lacked his father’s love and concern for his brother. When he heard the servant’s report that his brother had returned safe and sound, he should’ve cried with joy, “Where is he?!” He should’ve run to his brother with the same warm embrace of his father, to welcome the lost back home. He could’ve said, “I was worried about you, but I’m so glad that you’re alive. You can’t imagine how much father prayed for your safety and return. He was heartbroken when you left—you should’ve seen how he wept. We wish you’d never left. But welcome home brother—you’re back where you belong.”

But none of this! The older brother was indignant instead. Angry that the father and family would celebrate the return of this rebel, this scoundrel, this disrespectful young man who’d shamed his family and their name. With self-righteous anger he lashes out: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

As if to say: “This is the thanks I get for all the hard work I’ve done and the loyalty I’ve given? And you go and reward that miserable son of yours.” The contrast between the father and the older brother is so stark. When the prodigal son came home, it was really the response of the older brother that he expected to receive. That older brother, so far from loving his brother and showing concern for him, really did disown him and count him as dead. The older brother didn’t even acknowledge his family ties to the prodigal—calling him, “that son of yours.” Perhaps if the older brother would’ve received his younger brother back at all, he would only be satisfied if he were treated as a servant. Make that miserable son work off his guilt. Let him labor in the purgatory of his own making and see if he can work off the guilt and shame he’s accumulated. Maybe after he’s suffered long enough, we can begin to think about whether he’s worthy of being called son and brother again. But he better not think he’s going to get off scot-free.

The older brother apparently wants to call the father “back to his senses.” The father shows that he still loves the older son, and hasn’t forgotten him, saying: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The father gently reminded his older son that he’d lost nothing as a result of the father’s mercy and forgiveness to the younger son. Everything the son had was still his, and he was just as much loved by the father. But it was necessary to celebrate the lost brother, because he was dead to the family, dead to God—but now he was alive and restored. He was lost—lost in rebellion, selfish pursuit of his own desires; lost pursuing the false and fleeting dreams of wealth and wild living—but now he was found. He was home in the fold, back in the family where he belonged—redeemed from the fatal influences of the worldly life he’d left behind. He was truly found.

When have we been like that older brother? Indignant and jealous of the mercy and kindness shown to such a sinner. Would we be ashamed or too offended to call as our brother, one who had fallen so far and come back? One who had insulted and dishonored our father? Who wasted the family inheritance on prostitutes and reckless living? Would we expect them to crawl back on hands and knees and continue to suffer the shame and regret of their sin, until we counted them worthy to stand and be counted as a brother—as part of the family? Or would we continue to deny them welcome into the family?

Sometimes there’s a sense of entitlement and privilege that can creep out of our sinful nature, even as Christians. Hopefully not in such blatant ways. But there’s nothing Christian at all about having such a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness. Our sinful nature will express itself one way or another, whether or not we’re involved in open sins. In the case of the younger brother, the sinful nature expressed itself through open and brash acts of sin and immorality. In the case of the older brother, he wasn’t openly sinning, but his sinful nature manifested itself in his jealousy, lovelessness, and lack of concern for his brother. This is often how that sinfulness manifests itself in us as Christians. We might act like we’ve earned our place (we haven’t), we might act like our record is cleaner than the rest (it isn’t), and we might act like the church would be a better place if there weren’t so many sinners here (hello!!! We are all sinners!).

Now the church is not told to associate with openly unrepentant sinners—those who still cling to their sin and won’t repent—in fact the church is to avoid such association. But that’s completely different from welcoming in the repentant, the sorrowful, and the lost who seek the mercy of God. For we’re the same. We call on the same mercy for our sin, so we ought to welcome such people with the same open embrace that our heavenly Father does. We should celebrate whenever lost sinners come to our Father’s embrace. We should celebrate and be glad for the lost sister or brother who is now found and is alive in Christ Jesus.

So welcome back to the Father’s house, lost sons and daughters of God! Receive the full privilege of being a son or daughter of God—a privilege we’re totally unworthy and undeserving of. Welcome to the place of celebrating God’s love and mercy, as we praise His name and receive His banqueting gifts—gifts of His Word and promises heard through the scriptures; gifts of His saving promises in Baptism; gifts spread on the table of His Holy Supper to celebrate and participate in the forgiveness won on the cross. Thanks to God, our older brother is Jesus, who gives us the same welcoming embrace as our heavenly Father. Our brother Jesus who came like the good shepherd to seek and find us lost souls and bring us home. It’s to Jesus, our older brother that we owe thanks for the clean slate of forgiveness that we have, that gives us our entrance into our home of heaven. So welcome back—you are where you belong! 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 was the lost son still “lost” when he came back to his home? How did he think he would enter his father’s house again? When we approach God on our own merits, do we have any basis to enter His house? How instead do we make our approach? Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:19-22

2. In what way was the prodigal mistaken about his father’s nature? How do people sometimes think of God and His capacity for love and forgiveness? Have you ever doubted that you could be forgiven for a certain sin? How does the richness of God’s love radically change our perspective?

3. What was right about the lost son’s approach? cf. Luke 18:9-14

4. What was the older brother’s response to the lost son’s return? When have we “played this part”? In what ways has our sinful nature shown itself in a sense of self-righteousness or entitlement?

5. What have we ever lost because of the grace and mercy of Christ to another sinner? How can we better welcome a lost sinner who is struggling to find forgiveness, and even ashamed of their sin? 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 How can we adopt the attitude of our heavenly Father, rather than the older brother?

6. Consider again all that God has done for you in His mercy and love. How wonderful to go from being lost to being found!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 4:7-11, for Lent 4, "Who am I?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about the overarching story of life that defines us. The story of our repentance over sin, receiving forgiveness from Jesus, and the promise of eternal life. Today I want you to reflect on who we’re called to be in this lifetime, as we wait for the coming end. Since this is our future and this is our story, who are we to be and what are we to do? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When the apostle Peter declares to us from the pages of Scripture that the “end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded, for the sake of your prayers”—what’s our reaction? Being that his warning was written nearly 2,000 years ago, do begin to doubt the urgency of his admonition? Do we scoff and say: “Where is the promise of [Christ’s] coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4)? Do we take it seriously enough that the end is near? Perhaps you do take it seriously, and live with a readiness of repentance and a confidence born in Christ. Or maybe you realize that even if Jesus doesn’t return in your lifetime, and if we’re blessed to live maybe 70-80 years in this life—whether or not the end of the whole world is near to us, at least our own individual days are numbered, and we ought to live ready for the judgment.

As we watch for this return we should be self-controlled and sober-minded. But we’re not to be idle—there’s work to be done. Thinking of the end of the world for a moment, try to relate it to a ship loaded with passengers, beginning to sink in the deep waters, far from land. The ship being the world, and the passengers symbolizing all humanity. As the great ship begins to list and sink beneath the perilous waters, the cry goes out: “Abandon ship! Every man for himself!” In that moment, how would you respond?

A real life account of this was when the British warship HMS Birkenhead struck a rock off the coast of Africa in 1852, and began to sink. As the crew that survived the crash and efforts to save the ship assembled on deck, the ship was clearly lost, and the lifeboats were already full. Twenty women and children were aboard, in addition to the soldiers. When the captain knew the ship was lost, he cried out that every man who could swim must save himself and swim for the lifeboats. And why not? At a time like this, “you gotta do what you gotta do” to save yourself. Right? However, chaos did not ensue with each one pushing past another to make it to the lifeboats. Instead the commanding officer of the British soldiers aboard the ship refused to heed the sentiment, “Every man for himself!” They knew that if they rushed the life boats the women and children would be swamped. With valiant self-control the soldiers stood their ground and sank with the ship—those who could swim then clinging to wreckage, for the sake of letting the precious cargo of the lifeboats get to safety. Only 193 of the 634 people on board survived. My point isn’t to point out the virtues of chivalry, as they may be—but rather that in the moment of peril, they considered the lives of others more important than their own.

So if the end was near and our ship was sinking, which of the two would we be? Would we look out only for ourselves and leave the others to their own fate? Or would we recognize that we owe something to those around us? Thinking of the world as a ship that’s sinking, and not knowing how long it will stay afloat, what will we do to warn our fellow passengers of the danger? The natural thing for us to do would be to look out for ourselves. But when Peter writes about the end of time to us, he said, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, because love covers a multitude of sins.” Paul echoes this sentiment of loving one another by saying: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Christian love calls us to have concern not only for our own well-being, but also that of others.

Our present-day thinking is so contrary to that, however. Our Christian faith is so individualized, that many would have a difficult time explaining what we need the church for. It’s become so commonplace to talk about “my personal relationship with Jesus,” and thinking about having our “felt needs” met. So is the church something more than just a place for individuals who have a private relationship with God to gather? Peter called on them not only to love one another fervently, but also to “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” To show hospitality to one another obviously reflects that they are to be a community. A community in gracious and compassionate service to one another without grumbling. The gifts that God has given us are to be used also in service to one another. Life together; community—not individualism and disconnectedness are the picture of the church.

Remember that it was not self-interest that guided Jesus as He set out to achieve the world’s redemption at the cross. Sinful humans had sabotaged our own “ship,” the world, causing it to sink. We even mutinied against God, our captain, and rejected His Son, sent to rescue us. He could’ve left us to ourselves, to sink in the sea of our own destruction, but he didn’t seek to save His own life. Rather He sacrificed His life so that our sins wouldn’t be held against us. The one we crucified with our sins, pleaded to God for our pardon. He died so that we might be buoyed up to life and safety by the hope of His resurrection. Baptized into His church we’ve boarded lifeboats and are being rescued. And there’s more than enough room aboard the lifeboats for everyone! But having been rescued—the end is not yet here…the ship has not yet sunk. So are we simply to drift aimlessly in the lifeboats until Jesus returns to take us into the good harbor of heaven? Are Christians to float safely in our churches while ignoring those who are sinking in the sea around us? No, rather the church is created to be a caring community that extends love and hospitality not only among ourselves, but to others.

Even on the cross, as He gave up His life for us, Jesus knew that we would need each other. He had taught His disciples to depend on one another and He urged them to go out and make disciples, to spread the good news of forgiveness and hope, and to build the church to be a refuge for the community of believers. On the cross, when Jesus said to Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother,” He gave us a purpose for caring for one another.

So in answer to the question we began with, “Who am I?” we find the answer that God has called us to be a caring community in Christ. We’re brought together by God to use His gifts in love and service to one another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about how service to one another can often be inconvenient. He said that no one was too good for the meanest and lowest service. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps—reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised [across] our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done.” As followers of Christ, following the banner of His cross, be prepared to have our plans interrupted for the need of serving someone else. We exist as this caring community, because we are to bring help and hope to those who are in danger or despair—so lend your arms and voices, and bring them to rescue and safety! 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.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "God and Disasters"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. There’s an old familiar problem that always rears its ugly head whenever there are natural disasters like the earthquakes, tsunamis, or humanly inflicted tragedies like genocides and terrorist attacks. That old familiar problem is the question of evil. Usually people ask this question: “How can a good God exist and allow so much evil to happen?” Great tragedies with huge death tolls bring this question racing to the forefront of our minds. Sometimes, as a way of excusing God, people will actually blame the victims instead. It was their wickedness that brought this disaster down on their own head. Today we’ll hear how Jesus addresses these problems and what God has done to intervene against evil in this world. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’ve probably all heard some of the opining when these tragedies occur. Often it’s offensive speculation. Many people try to find someone to blame behind some disaster or calamity. Religious zealots want to say God did it to punish specific sins they have in mind. Atheists and agnostics want to say that if a God does exist, He must be evil, to have allowed these things to happen. So disasters become a good excuse for woefully misguided Christians to blame the victims, and the same disasters become a good excuse for woefully misguided unbelievers to blame God. Listen to some examples you may or may not have heard about. Most recently Pat Robertson said that the nation of Haiti had “swore a pact with the devil” to serve him in exchange for gaining independence from French rule, and “every since then have been cursed by one thing after another.” Implying that the earthquake that hit there was a result of some great national sins they had committed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, actor Danny Glover blamed the same earthquake on global warming and climate change, and the inaction of nations like ours at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Going back a little further, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey (a noted author), and Chuck Colson all made comments blaming Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of the city of New Orleans. Jeremiah Wright and many others, from religious and non-religious backgrounds blamed 9/11 on U.S. government policy, on the presidency, or any number of other conspiracies. A man I overheard in an airport some 5 years ago said that if you looked “biblically” at the tsunamis that hit Indonesia several years ago, that they must have happened because those people really “p.o.’ed” someone. Implying that they too had committed some grave sin which led to this massive destruction. Atheists and agnostics meanwhile scoff at both a God who would allow such things to happen, and His supposed followers who blame the victims of these tragedies.

Going further back yet, we find that such pat explanations for tragedies are as old as human history. The book of Job records how his friends blamed him for the terrible losses he endured, including the death of his children, his servants, his flocks and herds. They accused Job of some secret sin that he refused to confess—because no righteous person could suffer such calamity at God’s hand. Sandwiched between these modern-day and ancient examples, was the time of Jesus and His disciples. Then too, people held a view that sin and suffering were connected through cause and effect. This led to situations like Jesus’ disciples asking, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). When it came to the example in today’s reading in Luke 13, we’re not told directly who the people were trying to blame. But Jesus uses this opportunity to expose this whole system of thinking about tragedies and calamities as false, and to cut short all speculation about why it occurred.

They came to Him telling about Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. We don’t know anything else about this event—except to consider the heinous nature of it. Since Passover was the one time when laymen would be involved in making their own sacrifices at the altar, it likely happened them. So imagine the outrage: religious pilgrims participating in the highest religious festival in their most sacred environment—the Temple—being cut down in cold blood by foreign soldiers. It was an unimaginable sacrilege. To get a sense of how it would translate to our context, imagine terrorists gunning down a bunch of Christians in the midst of celebrating holy communion on Easter. Words couldn’t express the outrage and gut-wrenching sorrow we’d feel.

The people probably anticipated Jesus’ condemnation of Pilate’s wickedness, or at least a cry of despair. Perhaps these Galileans were known troublemakers who’d thus far eluded the government. We don’t know. But Jesus statement catches them all off guard. He cuts short any speculation about blame or any political accusations, and also determining some cause and effect from certain sins. Rather, He uses this as an occasion to draw them back to examine their own lives and their own sinfulness and mortality. His question exposes their thinking: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” They had chosen an example of a tragedy caused by deliberate human evil—one that we might compare to the acts of 9/11 or the genocides in countries like Rwanda or Bosnia of recent memory.

Jesus then adds a second example of tragedy—only this time the accidental death of 18 Jerusalemites, who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed. This example we might compare to the earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, though on a much smaller scale. Here was just as much of a tragedy as Pilate’s murders, though now with no obvious person to blame. But it raised the same questions: did they get what was coming to them? Had they done some specific sin for which God was repaying them? Jesus again asks “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Rather than speculating about the cause of the tragedy—which wouldn’t really change anything—Jesus provoked them to examine their own life. Were they living without repentance for some sin? Were they ready to face their judgment if their life ended suddenly? Jesus showed them that receiving God’s grace for sin was their greatest concern. His point was that something worse than dying in an unexpected tragedy could happen to you. That something worse would be to die without repenting of your sins. Jesus told the same to an invalid whom He healed and sent on his way, saying: “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14).

So where are we left? Disaster or untimely death doesn’t tell us anything about whether we or someone else was more sinful than another. It doesn’t tell us that God loves us or hates us. The circumstances of life can’t be read like a horoscope that tells God’s pleasure or displeasure. All of these are common reactions, and all of them are harmful to ourselves or to others who see us use them, because they misrepresent God. We’re left instead to contemplate the shortness of life and the immediate need that every one of us has to repent over our sins. As Jesus teaches in the short parable about repentance that follows this exchange, He’s like a patient gardener who looks for the fruit of repentance. A gardener would eventually cut down a tree that’s inactive and unproductive, and throw it away. But God is patient with us, and gives us an opportunity to repent and bear fruit. That fruit is the evidence of a changed life. But this opportunity lasts only for our lifetime. So all tragedies leave us a reminder of the urgency to repent of our sins and turn to God’s grace, for we know that He desires not the death of the sinner, but that we would turn from our sinful ways and live (Ezek. 18:23).

That nagging problem of evil remains. What does God do about evil? Shouldn’t He intervene? Doesn’t God care? When suffering and evil are inescapably thrust before us, it’s easy to overlook or forget how God intervened against evil. Only at the cross of Jesus can we finally find some resolution for evil. There we see God’s greatest intervention against evil—the intervention that reversed the whole fate of the sinful world, and turned the tables on evil. At the cross, the gnarled, grotesque fingers of evil clutched and clawed at Jesus, the Son of God, trying to extinguish the light that had come into the world. The devil thought he tasted victory when Jesus died on the cross. Evil seemed to have had its greatest day as it snuffed out the greatest life that ever lived. But the innocent life of Jesus proved an unstoppable force that rose from the grave. Suddenly sin was buried forever in His tomb, and God had the victory instead. Jesus defeats evil at the cross, not by brute force, but by exhausting evil of all its force and power.

In the cross of Jesus there’s finally some resolution to the battle between good and evil. At the cross Jesus cut us sinners free from sin and evil. Sin is crucified, so that one day this old sinful shell can die and fall away like the husk of a seed, and we won’t perish with it. Even now the new creation that has begun in us through the Holy Spirit is sprouting forth into new life. At the cross we see the goodness of the God who delivers us from evil by cutting us free from it all, so that when the final judgment comes and God destroys sin and death once and for all—we won’t be casualties, but survivors. Not only are we released from its grip, but we’re spared the eternal consequences of our sin, even if sometimes we face the earthly consequences.

When we look at the cross of Jesus, and His forsakenness as He bore the world’s sin—one could easily be appalled at the spectacle of it all. Such immeasurable evil. To a stranger who knew nothing of Jesus or His life, it might seem as though God was greatly angered at Him. A stranger might wonder what He’d done so wrong as to deserve such a fate. They might have asked if He were a worse sinner than the rest to suffer in this way. Yet in the midst of that suffering, Jesus was the most blessed of all. Here God would be glorified through His death that would pour out God’s gracious love and mercy for all the world. There at the cross, despite the suffering and tragedy of it all, God was pleased with Jesus, as He obeyed His Father’s will. So if we learn from the cross of Jesus, we can know that even in the midst of suffering, even in the face of great evil, this does not mean God’s favor is taken away from us or that He has abandoned us. Thank God that His love for us and blessing isn’t limited only to the times when everything is going right. God is with us and identifies with us in all our sufferings and sorrows. More than that, His suffering and death means that we’re spared from the greater tragedy of dying without God’s grace. God does care about our suffering, and the cross is God taking on the full force of evil and winning for us. And the death toll of that tragedy was one. Truly we’re blessed 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:
Listen to audio at:

1. What kinds of speculation have you heard about the cause of recent tragedies? When it’s done by Christians, how do you think it affects our witness to the good news of Jesus?

2. A common idea throughout history is that suffering is caused by a one-to-one relation to some sin or evil we’ve done. How did the friends of Job show this view? Job 4:7; 8:4; 22:5. How did the disciples of Jesus? John 9:2-3. How does Jesus counter this idea? Reread Luke 13:1-5; cf. John 9:3; 11:4.

3. We cannot trace a particular cause for all suffering or tragedy. Does this mean that we never suffer as the result of our own sins or those of others? Isaiah 64:1-9. Does grace mean we can sin with impunity? Romans 6:1-4. How does the Bible affirm that God is nevertheless sovereign over all that happens on earth, good or evil? Isaiah 45:5-13; Matt. 5:45.

4. Since suffering and death are a daily reality, is it simply the scale of human tragedies that makes us more conscious of questions about evil and life and death? What should our response be when such disasters occur?

5. Reread Luke 13:1-9. What greater tragedy does Jesus want us to avoid by repenting of our sins? Cf. John 5:14. Does God desire sinners to die? Ezek. 18:23; 1 Tim. 2:4.

6. What is God’s greatest intervention against evil in human history? When will evil finally be eradicated altogether?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 1:3-5, for Lent 3, "This is It???"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about the question of identity, and knowing who we are in Christ, so that we can be true to ourselves and true to God. Today I invite you to reflect on the question of “what’s my story?” If your whole life could be embraced in one defining story, what would it be? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Naturally there would be quite a variety of responses if you asked people what the story of their life was. There’s all the little stories of our daily lives, what we did at work, what our childhood was like, who were our friends and family. Which people impacted our lives, where we were and what we did when notable events happened. Our lives are full of stories that tell who we are, what we’ve done, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Some of us have grand aspirations to leave an impact or legacy in life like an Olympian, inventor, or great leader. Some may want to leave evidence of a life well-lived, and that people can see what we’ve done and where we’ve been. Others simply wanted to be loved and remembered fondly by their families. Most probably wouldn’t want to be completely forgotten from history and by those whom we knew and loved. But what’s the big, defining story that can sum up your whole life and bring together who you are and where you’re going?

Michael Jackson is a well-known example of someone who wanted to leave behind an unforgettable story. More than 10 years after a concert tour titled “HIStory,” Jackson planned the perfect ending to his career, with one last hurrah. 50 big concerts were scheduled and sold out. The title of the grand finale was “This is It!” Tragically, he died prematurely, and the grand dreams to remind everyone why he was the “King of Pop” were never realized. The legacy and story he would’ve left behind were left incomplete, and many would say tarnished and spoiled by a life haunted by scandals. This is it?? However his legacy might be measured, it isn’t an imperishable, undefiled, or unfading story of his life.

Contrast this with the stories of two other lives cut short prematurely. The two thieves who hung on the cross with Jesus. Both had similar stories—a life led in crime, a just trial and conviction, and finally their death penalty. To us, the rest of their stories are a blank page. Their stories were headed to an ending of eternal death and separation from God. But one story changed dramatically at the last moment. The one thief who turned in repentance of his sins to trust in Jesus, suddenly had a whole new story. He who would’ve been lost and forgotten, a page quickly lost from history—suddenly had an inheritance of eternal life. Suddenly the last page of a story gone wrong became the first page of a story just begun. Jesus redeemed him at the cross, so that his defining story could be simply summed up as this: “he confessed his sin, received forgiveness from Jesus, and got the promise of Paradise!” Suddenly a criminal who faced death was now given the living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.

Now there’s the defining story that can fit every one of our lives. The confession of our sin, receiving forgiveness from Jesus and the promise of eternal life in Paradise. It’s amazingly simple, but it’s the basic story of who we are as Christians. It tells who we are and where we’re going. This story is yours and mine, because we’ve been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. On our own efforts, any story or legacy we could’ve built would be perishable, spoiled, and fleeting. So don’t let your life’s story be told by something perishable, spoiled, and fading. Don’t store up for yourself treasure on earth with fame and riches—which will all be destroyed. Don’t let your story be an empty and purposeless legacy that will be another lost page in history. Instead be embraced by Jesus’ story, and have treasure in heaven.

Because we’ve been born again, we’re brought into that greater story of Jesus, who gives us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. Jesus’ infinitely perfect story and legacy spills over to us through the forgiveness of sins and all the blessings He wants to shower down on us. So we’re brought into God’s story that is imperishable—it can’t be destroyed. It’s built on the indestructible life of Jesus who rose from the dead. This story is undefiled—it’s not spoiled and marred by sin. This is no tainted legacy, but one that’s cleansed and purified of sins by the blood of Jesus. This story is unfading—it will never fade from the pages of history, because our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 3:5; 21:27). This incredible story of God’s love for us, told in the saving acts of Jesus Christ, isn’t a story we can hope will last a generation or two, like those with some earthly fame might. It’s not even a story that will last several millennia, as some kings, emperors, or philosophers have achieved. This is an eternal story, part of our inheritance that is kept in heaven for us. For the author of our story is the eternal God, and all whose names are written in His book of life will never perish.

There once was a time in America, when the salvation story of sinners being made right with God through Jesus Christ would’ve been widely known and accepted. Christianity had the prominent voice in our country. But it’s not so anymore, and so many voices compete for our attention. We’re told that there’s no grand story of existence that ties everything together. People are distrustful of any truth claims or explanations for why we’re here and who we are. We live in an age of skepticism and relativism, where all competing ideas are regarded as equally true—except the belief in the Bible as truth. But all the self-authored explanations for existence, from the far-fetched to the convincing, are still in the final analysis just human stories, and therefore inadequate. That’s why we must turn to the Divine Story with God as the author. The real explanation of reality, and the true source of knowledge that’s above all our limited sight. We have the privilege to help make that story known again. To retell again and again how God is the author of history, and how we’ve been reborn into the story and the imperishable inheritance.

As the apostle Peter wrote in his letter, he calls on us to live together in this story that defines us. Our story is about living with a purpose and a goal—the eternal inheritance of heaven. Peter would have us know the great mercy of our God who preserves us by His power, and that we would be wrapped up and immersed in that story of mercy. That our lives would be saturated with the blessings of God that spill over to us from the rich legacy and story of Jesus Christ, who gave His all for us. That our lives would be shielded and protected from false, humanly created stories that circulate and routinely fade and perish from history. Instead, that we would be guarded by God’s power and continue in the knowledge of the One True Faith.

Then, when we take stock of our lives, and ask the big questions of existence, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?”—we can find trustworthy answers in our Christian faith, and the Divine Story that God has brought us into. We see how our lives fit into the grand scheme of things, and how we’re like that thief on the cross whose story was forever changed for the better when he confessed his sins, received Jesus’ forgiveness, and the promise of Paradise. So at the end of our life, we won’t breathe out a defeated and disappointed, “This is it???”, but in confident faith, looking to the eternal inheritance waiting for us, we can joyfully cry in victory: “This is it! This is truly it!” For by faith in Christ, our story will not have ended, but only just begun! Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, "Chain Reaction!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Welcome again to our church on this Preschool Sunday, and thanks to our children for singing their praises to God today! The Bible reading that I want to speak to you about is the second reading you heard today, Romans 5:1-5, printed in your bulletin.

5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In everyday life there are many circumstances where access is denied. We walk past “secret doors” in airports, hospital and government buildings, and elsewhere. “Employees Only” or “Authorized Personnel Only” may be written on the door. We see “No Trespassing,” “Kapu,” or “Private Property” posted along roads and certain lands. For those who work or live in such places, they can go through the door, enter the property, and have access to what’s inside. There’s nothing secret about it for them. We, however, don’t have the security clearance, or employment to allow entry. We aren’t owners, we aren’t family. So for us, it’s Access Denied.
Often people assume that we automatically have access to God. We assume that nothing hinders our relationship to God. It’s like walking through the building and opening up any door you want, and paying no attention to the signs or whether entry is allowed. We think: sure, there’s a God up there, and I don’t know who He really is, but any time I need to contact Him, I can count on the fact that I’ll have direct access. But if we don’t know who God is, how can we know that we have access to Him? What if He’s a distant and uninterested God? How do we know He hears prayers? How do we know whether He is angry or pleased when He hears them?

These are all really “access” questions. As you can see, without some knowledge of God, we don’t reliably know God’s attitude toward us. We don’t know if we have access or not. But God is not unable to communicate to us. He is not unable to make His love to His creation known. He came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and made Himself known, that we might have access to God through Him. This was what St. Paul was writing for us in today’s reading. He was writing about this access that we have by faith in Jesus, God’s Son who came into the world to grant us access to the grace of God. Paul writes about the fact that we don’t automatically have access to God. There is a natural barrier between us that keeps us from having direct access to God. That barrier is our sin, or the disobedience to God’s Law. It’s the guilt of sin that prevents us from having an “open line” with God. This disobedience to God amounts to us being at war with God; more than simply being a “rebellious child.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Paul explains this in the first 4 chapters of Romans, then arrives at the conclusion in the first verse we read today: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Paul explained to the Romans that the sole basis for their access to God wasn’t any privilege they’d earned—they didn’t qualify for access to God on the basis of good behavior—it was solely through Jesus Christ that they had access to God and peace with Him. How? Jesus took away all their guilt through His suffering and death on the cross. Even though we were as guilty as sin, God declares those who have faith in Jesus as innocent. Because of Jesus’ innocence and because He died for our sins, our relationship with God is restored. Instead of “access denied,” the sign now reads, “Access granted.” Access granted by faith in Jesus.

Faith in Jesus, then, is our access to God, the foundation for peace with God, and for a hope that’s solidly founded even in the midst of uncertainties and great difficulty. This is the rest of what Paul tells us. He said that this access to God’s grace, the undeserved love of God, gives us reason to rejoice in two things. The first is to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We rejoice that our hope to enter heaven is secure because Jesus repaired the relationship with God for all who believe. Of course we’d rejoice in that! It’s an indescribable gift that we couldn’t have deserved. But the second thing Paul tells us we can rejoice about is quite a surprise.

He says, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings!” Our sufferings?!?! Who rejoices in hardship and difficulty? Here we must understand that the wonderful truth described already—the truth that we’ve access to God through Jesus Christ, and innocence by faith—this truth allows us to face hardship and suffering in a whole different way than before we believed. Faith affords us a new perspective. When faith in Jesus is in effect, there’s this amazing chain reaction that takes place, that explains why we can rejoice in sufferings. This is the chain reaction Paul describes: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Hope that doesn’t disappoint is the end result of that chain reaction, but let’s look at the steps along the way.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance means the ability to bear up under suffering. It’s the same as patience. To face a hardship or difficulty without giving up or giving in. Now when the Bible teaches us that suffering produces endurance, its more than just “grin and bear it.” It’s not that if you just “tough it out and everything will get better.” It’s not a promise that everything will be rosy. Instead of having a rosy path, instead of simply having everything go right for us all the time, suffering teaches us patience. It teaches us that things don’t always come easily. It takes patience and determination—wherever we face challenges.

So the first step of the chain reaction was that suffering produces endurance; the second part is that endurance produces character. The kind of character that it’s talking about here is when we’ve been tried and tested by sufferings and challenges. Our character has stood the test and been approved. We all know that adversity makes you stronger. The Bible is full of stories of people of faith who faced great difficulties, and wrestled deeply in their heart with why they were suffering. Again and again, it was faith in God that laid the foundation for that suffering to produce endurance, and character. Their lives and character were shaped by the suffering they faced, and God’s grace carried them through. People like Joseph, Ruth, Daniel and Peter. People from the Bible stories your children learn. Consider getting a Bible story book and reading with your child about the heroes of faith, and how suffering produced patience and character in them.

Finally, the last step in the chain reaction is that character produces hope. Having a life that is matured, tried and tested by challenges, adversities, and hardships, while carried through by the grace of God, is a life that learns hope. This is a hope that’s born from facing hardship and adversity with the promise that we’ve access to God. How does a believer in Jesus face suffering? How did the saints of the Bible stories face their challenges? They faced them on their knees in prayer. They cried out to God in their difficulty and they had the assurance that they had open access to God. They put their faith in God’s promises to them, and knew that God heard their prayer. Out of the suffering they faced, the patience they learned, and the character shaped in them, they grew a lively hope in God. The God who carries us through and hears our prayers.

They didn’t always see the result of God’s promises in their own lifetimes. Oftentimes they lived on simply in faith. But they had the long record of God’s saving work to trust in. They knew God’s faithfulness to His promises. Their hope was not like our earthly hope—which is often no better than wishful thinking. Too many have experienced the dashing of our hopes as people didn’t live up to expectations or promises. Hope that rests on humans is too often disappointed. But they had hope in God. A hope that never disappoints and never puts us to shame, because God’s always faithful to His promises. He never breaks them. And Paul concludes our reading by saying that this hope doesn’t put us to shame because God has poured His love into our hearts through His Holy Spirit.

So finally, the result of our chain reaction—the result of facing suffering as a Christian, with faith in God, is that it produces in us a lively hope in God’s promises. Not a shallow or wishful-thinking kind of hope. But the kind of hope that allows us to do that rather bizarre thing that Paul suggests—rejoicing in our sufferings. Rejoicing because we know that God’s with us, we’ve full access to Him through Jesus Christ. Rejoicing that God has shown Himself faithful to carry us and other believers safely through hardship. Rejoicing that the end result of this suffering and hardship will be for our growth and for our good. The greatest and best example of suffering turning out for good, is of course Jesus Himself, whose suffering, death, and resurrection give us this unbeatable hope in the first place! So may we face our sufferings and hardships no longer with fear or despair, but with hope and confidence in God who gives us full access to Himself through Jesus Christ our Savior. In Him we trust. 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:
Listen to audio at:

1. Why is it crucial to know whether or not we have “access” to God? What would prevent our access? Read Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-4; Isaiah 59:1-2. How is access to God granted to us then? Read Romans 5:6-11; Ephesians 2:4-10

2. Our access to God is based on what Jesus did for us. Jesus is God’s Son, who made God known to us. His innocent life and death on the cross and resurrection accomplish for us a reconciliation with God. What does the word “justified” mean? It means that God declares us innocent by faith in Jesus. The whole book of Romans teaches this marvelous truth!

3. Access to God’s grace and love don’t come by earning it (not by works) but by faith (trust) in Jesus! Read Romans 3:21-4:25

4. Faith in Jesus and the open access to God sets the stage for some important truths about Christian life. First, it enables us to rejoice both in the hope of the glory of God (heaven!) and also rejoice in our sufferings! Second, to understand why we can rejoice in our sufferings, what is the “chain reaction” that faith allows to take place?

5. Explain with examples from your own life, how suffering or hardship produced endurance (patience), character, and ultimately hope. Read some examples of Bible characters who faced difficulty with faith in God. Read about Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Read about Ruth and Daniel in the books that bear their names. Read about Peter in the New Testament Gospels.

6. How is hope in God different from all earthly hopes? Why doesn’t it ever disappoint us? God is faithful to all His promises!