Monday, April 23, 2012

Sermon on Acts 4:11-21, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, "Author of Life"

Sermon Outline:
1.      Scene unfolds after the healing of a lame man, healed in the name of Jesus. Peter addresses crowd of Jewish men, second sermon in Acts. Dismisses any thought that this miracle happened by their power or piety (godliness); i.e. we are ordinary men. Not for their glory or greatness; “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps 115:1) How did this miracle happen? In no other way than this: the name of Jesus—faith in His name. Why does His name hold such power? I’ll gladly tell you! (Courage!)
2.      Heart of the issue: who is this Jesus, and how did you treat Him? How did God treat Him? Uncovers a most painful and shocking irony—they traded in God’s pure and innocent child, Jesus, for a murderer, Barabbas. They had an opportunity to speak for the release of Jesus, which Pilate was ready and willing to do, and they ignorantly followed their leaders and spoke vehemently against Him. And in doing so, they surrendered the Author of Life to death, while asking the “favor” of having a murderer set free!
3.      Talk about a colossal sin! Did they ever choose the wrong guy to kill! And for a murderer, of all people, to go free at their request! How can we explain this guilt? This sin? Sin ultimately defies explanation. Sure there are rationalizations, excuses, denials, passing the blame. But ultimate we are without excuse. There is no rationalization or excuse that can make sense of the insanity of killing the Holy and Righteous Son of God—the Author of Life, and asking for the freedom of a murderer. Only sin and evil can lead to choosing what is harmful and destructive to ourselves, even when we know better. Or when we don’t know better, sinning ignorantly, that we try to cover it up with excuses or denials. This is what sin does.
4.      Immeasurable guilt laid at their feet. Unspeakable evil. What could they do now? The deed was done. The past couldn’t be re-written. They were doomed. If you, in a fit of passion, had killed one who you thought to be your enemy, and then 3 days later they were alive again, raised from the grave—what would you naturally fear? Revenge? Death? Watch over your shoulder? Arrest and sentencing for your guilt might seem a safer escape!
5.      We don’t stand as far from their guilt in Jesus’ death as we are tempted to think. Neither did Peter. He knew what it was to deny Jesus, to repent and turn again to Jesus to have his sins blotted out, washed away, and find times of refreshing. We weren’t physically at the cross, shouting the curses against Jesus—but in the words of our songs and hymns: “it was my sin that held Him there” or “I caused your grief and sighing, by evils multiplying, as countless as the sands.” Or from the mouth of the prophet: “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity (guilt) of us all” (Is. 53:6b). No one can escape the guilt of the cross. We all shared in it. Humanity has collectively, as a group, committed great and terrible sin. And that sin put Jesus on the cross. The Lord laid on Jesus the guilt of us all.
6.      Peter’s sermon is astonishing, because despite all our guilt, their guilt, the immeasurable guilt of the death of the Author of Life, Jesus, God’s child, God is granting pardon! Forgiveness! Jesus is not seeking revenge, but to take away our sin. Author of Life, not of death! As proof of this, a man stands healed in His name. So repent! Turn again to Jesus, your sins will be washed away.
7.      We shamefully mistreated Jesus, but God has raised Him. Exalted Him. Heaven receives the victorious Lord till the day of restoration, the end of all things and the beginning of His new creation. Cannot stand against the man whom God has raised up from the dead, so stand for Him! Repent and turn! Times of refreshing.
8.      Who knows refreshment better than one who has been parched and dry, thirsty and craving water—and then finds a cool, refreshing fountain of water to drink from? Who knows refreshment better than those who has stood under the immeasurable guilt of laying our sins on the only Son of God, and denying Him to be the Christ, the One God sent for our life—and then finds God’s unimaginable mercy, like a cool, refreshing fountain, flowing with forgiveness over our dirty and dry soul? Who can know that refreshment better than those who have experienced the 180 degree turn from facing God’s rightful judgment and condemnation, to the news of His pardon and release. That He took the charges against us and bore them on Himself. That there is no measure, not an inkling of glory or credit that goes to us, but that it was all out of God’s perfect love and generosity. If you want to know…need to know times of refreshing, repent, turn from your sins to Jesus!
9.      Jesus came for those aching under a painful load of sin and guilt, for those who shared in the unspeakable evil of killing the Author of Life. But as the Author of Life, He comes to bring us His life.
10.  Come and know this Jesus! Know the Author of Life, who has written the story for your forgiveness and redemption, who laid down His life so that your guilt could be obliterated in His death. He is the One from before all time, who created and gave life to all things. He alone can restore life when we’ve damaged, destroyed, or lost it. He’s the One who brings life to the dead, brings refreshment to the thirsty and hungry. If you’ll allow me to make a play on words, Jesus, the Author of Life is the One you need to come to for the ultimate “book-signing”—where He signs your name into His Book of Life. All who believe in Jesus, who look to Him as the Author of Life, True God, our Savior, will have that priceless, incomparably valuable book-signing that means we will stand with Him in heaven one day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1.      Read Acts 3:1-10 about the healing of the lame man, which precedes today’s reading. What catches your attention? Re-read Acts 3:11-21. Peter and John don’t claim any credit for this miracle. Why? Read Psalm 115:1. How do Peter’s words in v. 12 contrast to the behavior of so many “faith healers” today?

2.      What is the startling irony that Peter exposes in his sermon? v. 13-15. Contrast from this reading how God treated Jesus, and how humans did. How is sin and evil simply inexplicable/inexcusable? Rom. 1:20; 2:1. Why do we make excuses, justifications, denials, etc anyway?

3.      How is the guilt of sin immeasurable? Ps. 130:3; 38:4. How are we participants in the guilt that put Jesus on the cross? Isaiah 53:6

4.      What is astonishing about what Peter is able to proclaim to the crowd despite the immeasurable guilt which was theirs and ours? What is so incredible about the good news (Gospel)?

5.      Contrast what you would expect to happen if you killed a person and they came back to life, with what actually happened when Jesus rose from the grave. What was His message to people? Luke 24:46-47

6.      Describe what it means to experience “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.” How is your soul in need of refreshment? How is this provided to you by Jesus? Luke 7:47; Prov. 15:30; Philemon 20

7.      Explore the idea that Jesus is the “Author of Life.” Heb. 12:1-2; Rev. 3:5; 20:15; 21:27. How does He write your name in His Book of Life?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sermon on Acts 4:32-35, for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Faith in Action"

Sermon Outline:
1.      OT readings replaced by readings from Acts—new history of the Christian church, post-resurrection of Jesus. Faith in action.
2.      What can we learn from the earliest Christians, and their example? Their faith united them in heart and soul. One head (Christ) and many members. The members of the body were coordinated, that is working toward a common purpose, not uncoordinated, which makes for great difficulty. Not working together—little accomplished. Of the same heart and soul—great things are possible; “great grace” of God is upon them. Grace motivates and animates the members of the body. It is Christ, our head, who instructs us through His Word, and guides and directs the members of the body to action.
3.      Title of Acts. “Acts of the Apostles”, to reflect the faith-produced response of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus’ Christ. Continues the story left off when Jesus rose from the dead, how the church became the church and grew massively throughout the Mediterranean, and set the pace for its spread to all the world. Since it’s not likely the original title, some have said “Acts of the Holy Spirit” might be better—God working through the apostles and directing them by His Spirit, moved the church into action and witnessed its early growth.
4.      No one kept their own possessions, but they lived communally. A description, not a command for all future churches. But what made it work? Communism and other attempts to create communal utopian societies have largely been failures. What was truly different here? Totally voluntary. No compulsion, but freely out of thankfulness to God and a desire to help each other and the needy. Could the same thing work today? Unless you’re all willing to voluntarily surrender your land and assets to the church (which I think is unlikely), it wouldn’t work. But isn’t it astonishing nonetheless, how Christ’s love motivated them to do so? What can we learn from their example?
5.      Complete selflessness. Not primarily concerned with ownership and holding onto what belonged to them. Knowledge that they were merely stewards. Our stewardship also: remembering they are gifts entrusted to us by God.
6.      “Communal stewardship” of their belongings. Church and school facilities and assets, that are in our communal stewardship. Expect faithfulness and responsibility, remembering that they belong not to individuals, but to the congregation and ultimately to God. Facilities cared for as our own home and property; encourage others to do the same. Manage the money wisely, committed to a higher purpose—to fund and bless the mission of the church and school to reach the lost with the Gospel of Christ, to make disciples by baptizing and teaching, and to run a quality Christian education program.
7.      Reality of stewardship was matched by concern for the needy. So efficient was their system of sharing and distribution, that in the initial gathering of believers, there was no one who was needy, because anyone who was in need was immediately taken care of! Amazing! Later growing pains: the apostles could no longer manage the food distribution; complaints were arising; distracting them from prayer and the ministry of the Word. So both care for the needy and preaching the Word of God could continue, church appointed 7 deacons.
8.      We can learn from their concern for the less fortunate, and find ways to help meet their needs. Larger, complicated society today; variety of services outside the church that address some charitable needs. But where are those whose needs still remain, fallen through society’s “safety net”? Still a unique and compassionate role for the church to play. Small congregation can’t meet all needs, but a body that works together and is coordinated, can concentrate efforts on doing a targeted number of things, and do them well.
9.      Joy motivated the early Christians, the joy of the Risen Lord Jesus. Responding to Jesus death for sin, and rising from the grave in victory over death. Their faith in Jesus, their confident knowledge that came from seeing the Risen Lord Jesus, animated or moved them into joyful action. A message to be spread throughout the world! This news couldn’t stay with them alone, but begged and itched to be shared. This truth and joy filled the apostles with great power to testify of Jesus’ resurrection. Faith should give rise to joyful witness.
10.  What should “faith in action” look like in our community? How can we “coordinate” the body to work together efficiently and toward a common purpose? Strong in the Word; connected to Christ our head. Mission statement: “To share the Triune God through Word and Sacrament, helping all to grow in Christ and to joyfully walk in His saving Grace.” Worship is the central activity for our congregation. Gather in His name, in His presence, and we hear His voice in the Bible and in preaching; brings us into unity of faith, grow in Christ, and joyfully walk in His saving grace. Faith in Christ, calls us into action for Him. And His love, His Spirit, motivates and directs us to the spreading of His Word and care for the needy.
11.  “Synod” means “walking together.” We walk together in coordination, in unison, as the body is united in heart and soul in God’s Word. Only God’s Word can produce that same pure unity and fellowship, not mere human effort. Our own sinful failings often get in the way of working together and being united in heart and soul. But unity comes from God and His Word, as we conform our hearts and souls to Him and His Word. Actively shaping us into the image of Christ our head, and leading us to think with the mind of Christ—counting others as more significant than yourself. Self-interest, by contrast, leads to quarrelling, selfishness, jealousy, and rivalry. Being interested in others, and showing concern and value to them, builds trust and encouragement and community.
12.  We’ll never be a perfect community, as long as we’re sinners here on earth. We’ll step on each other’s toes inadvertently or advertently. Mistakes and difficulties, bearing with one another just as the body does when one part is weakened or injured, the whole rest of the body aching together, or compensating for the weakened part. Like the good arms and leg bear the weight when an ankle is twisted, or like a child grows and learns coordination and overcomes clumsiness by practice, training, and exercise. So also believers will grow together and overcome our clumsy efforts at cooperation and working together—we will talk and figure things out—forgive and seek reconciliation where it’s needed.
13.  Grow from our mistakes; returning to the voice of Christ; hearing from Him of God’s incredible love—unfailing mercy and attention to our need, our helplessness; how He’s gone before us to our eternal home in heaven. We’ll hear the words of law that admonish us, lead us in a better way, guiding us into God’s good design for our lives. Words of Christ in the Gospel, that proclaims us forgiven of our sins, free to live for Christ and for others, and blessed and encouraged to be a blessing to others. When we start to get out of sync, like a clumsy body we’ll hear the voice of Christ’s word calling us again to the unity of peace. When we start to grow lethargic from inactivity, we hear His voice stir us to action, to fight the good fight and run the race. One day the race will be complete, and we’ll arrive in our glorious home in heaven, and then and only then will the community of believers be completely pure of any sin, error, and division, and we will all be gathered in perfect, heavenly, eternal fellowship. That is the kingdom of glory for which we wait! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1.      During the season of Easter, readings from the New Testament book of Acts replace the Old Testament readings. What takes place in this “new history” of the Christian church? What central events at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry drive forward the action and events of the book of Acts? Why? Luke 24, Acts 1.

2.      Describe the early Christian church as seen in Acts 4:32-35. What do you find remarkable about it? What was responsible for these characteristics?

3.      Where does the church find unity of  “heart and soul”? 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 1:22; 4:14; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:10, 19. 1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:2

4.      What was basic to the success of the communal living of the early Christians? What later threatened to disrupt this success? See Acts 5:1-11; 6:1-7. What is basic to a Christian understanding of stewardship, even as practiced individually? Who does it all ultimately belong to? How does that change our perspective on how we “steward” what is entrusted to us?

5.      How was the early Christian church attuned to the needs of the poor? What is a focused way that we can direct our help to the needy? What moved them into action, and motivated them? Find that same joy in Christ’s Word and in Worship!

6.      What should the church’s response be to inevitable conflicts and disagreements? How should they be resolved? Matt. 5:22-24; Eph. 4:1-3

7.      How does having Christ as our head keep the body coordinated and working together? How does it shape our treatment of the other members of the body? Gal. 6:1-3; Col. 2:19

Monday, April 09, 2012

Sermon on Mark 16:1-8, for Easter Sunday, "The Morning News!"

It was early on a Sunday morning, if you can imagine it—a familiar routine unfolded. An average Joe, or let’s say a Peter, rolled out of bed, rubbed his eyes, and headed for the kitchen, still yawning from a Saturday night slumber. As his hands and feet mechanically go through their morning rituals—brew the coffee, toast the bread, open the front door and pick up the morning paper—he’s oblivious to what events are astir. Drowsy with sleep, he pages through the headlines in the morning paper: “Stock market falls for third consecutive dayCongressional deadline looms as gridlock seizes the Capitol…” pages rustle, business, politics, same old, same old, local news, sports, religion: “The tomb was empty: Reports that Jesus is alive!” But the pages keep turning as the half-interested, half-bored man concludes that none of the articles are of interest, and drops the folded paper at the side of his couch. The TV flips on to the morning news, and more routine headlines follow… “Police detain two suspects in armed robbery case…Annual surf competition begins…Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”…but with eyes already glazed over, and mind still numb, our Peter begins channel surfing.
Is this little scenario possible? Does it seem incredible to you, that the news of Jesus’ death and Resurrection could somehow get lost in the routine headlines and news of daily life? That the astonishing news of the Resurrection could be so casually passed over? Of course it’s not delivered to us in the same way—through headlines or news broadcasts, but through the preaching of God’s Word and hearing His Gospel, the good news. And of course we ought not to treat this good news so lightly! This is a news report that ought never to grow dull or uninteresting. Millions of headlines cross our daily papers, news broadcasts, websites, and airwaves, and truly most of them are not all that unique. There is a lot of recycling, of repetition, of old hat and familiar stories that might be relevant across the nation for a month, or within a tiny community for a few days. But the good news of Easter—that Jesus’ tomb is empty and that He is alive—this is an unparalleled news story that has universal and lasting relevance. Here, and in every place and culture, and over the course of nearly two thousand Easter’s that have been celebrated, and the news is still not old! “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!” God in Christ has defeated sin and death for us.
There would be no Easter without Good Friday. And Good Friday would not be Good if not for Easter! Jesus’ death on the cross on this Friday past is remembered and called ‘good’ because of Jesus’ rising from the grave on this day. The message of Easter is not one of springtime and flowers and a generic message of the annual renewal of creation—although those themes have certainly surrounded the celebration of Easter as earthly echoes. But the message is of the God-man Jesus Christ, physically killed on the cross, buried, closed within His tomb, and then on the third day physically rising from His grave in a body that was no longer subject to death or decay.
Not a tattered and bruised body, but a glorified, renewed body—yet with the tell-tale marks of the nails and spear wounds in His hands and feet—declaring that this was no imposter or body double, but the same Jesus Christ whose hands and feet were pinned to the cross, and whose side was pierced with a spear so that blood and water ran out. He was the same man they had seen lifeless, still, hanging on the cross. All His life, His vitality, drained and gone. The compassionate man they knew, the words of truth that flowed from His lips, the healings that occurred at the touch of His hand or the firm words of His voice. Now stilled, now gone. Only the body left to be honored in what small ways they could, as they wrapped Him in linens and placed Him in that cold rock tomb. Hopes and joys vanished as Mary and the others saw the stone rolled shut and they went wearily home.
Did any of them manage to worship on that Sabbath? Could any of them form words of praise to God on their lips, that Saturday when Christ lay resting in the tomb? Did they wail the despairing cries of the Psalmist, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also?” (Ps 31:9) Or did any words choke like a knot in the throat, with hearts that felt like lead?
It was to women and men, defeated and discouraged like this, that the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb came. The news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead jolted them like a joyous trumpet blast ringing through their darkened and gloomy spirits! Fear and trembling broke over them as their ears were shocked with the unbelievable news. Mary Magdalene and the others had traced the same steps back to that foreboding tomb where they had seen the place where Jesus was laid. In their sorrow they had not even given thought to who would move the stone until they arrived at the tomb. To their amazement the tomb stood open with an angel standing there! The angel said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.” What? Can it be true? How is it possible? What could this mean?? Where is my Lord that I might see Him!?! Questions like these must have raced through their minds as alternating waves of trembling fear and disbelief and then ecstatic joy washed over them as they tried to grasp what this all meant.
Meanwhile, Peter and the disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews. He had been fingered as one of Jesus’ disciples by the servant girl and the bystanders in the courtyard outside where Jesus’ trial had happened. “Oh cowardly day! A thousand times already I’ve relived those moments before the rooster crowed, and wished that I could have done it over. That I could have lived up to my promise to Jesus that night, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.’ If only I had the courage to stand by Him! If only I had not denied my Lord! Three times! If only, if only....” A knock at the door.... “Who can that be? Mary Magdalene? She began to recount to us what they’d seen at the empty tomb, and how they heard these words of the angel... ‘You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen...He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.’
Can you imagine the thoughts that filled my heart as I heard those words? It’s not possible—could it be? My mind raced to grasp it. ‘He is not here; see the place where they laid Him’—I must go see for myself! ‘Go tell his disciples, and Peter....AND PETER!!!’ Am I still to be counted among the disciples? After my denials? My cowardice? Would Jesus still receive me back? ...AND PETER!!! I will not fail Him now! ‘John! Let’s run to the tomb; QUICKLY!!!’ You wouldn’t believe how these legs found their strength and ran to that empty grave. The words of Mary, the angel’s message still ringing in my ears... ‘He is going before you to Galilee...there you will see Him just as He told you.’
The words of Jesus came rushing sweetly back to my ears as line by line of once mysterious words suddenly fell into place and Jesus’ teachings began to reveal the puzzle picture that was only now clear...only a sentence before He told me I would deny Him, He had said these words: ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ RAISED UP....GALILEE!”  Of course! He was talking about His death and resurrection!” As Peter and John ran to the empty tomb with thoughts like these unfolding the miracle of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they saw with their own eyes the empty tomb and the grave clothes. They believed the Lord, and their fear and gloom gave way to joy and confident faith, confirmed in glorious truth when they met the Lord Jesus in person, as He came among the company of the disciples for 40 days after His resurrection. And Peter was once again back in the company of the disciples, restored, forgiven, claimed again by Jesus who prayed for him, who died for him.
If you were Peter, hearing this news on Easter Sunday morning, you couldn’t possibly sit back and sip your morning coffee dully and ignore the incredible news! Neither can we! The news of Jesus’ rising from the dead may well be delivered to your ears every Easter—even each Sunday! But this news is just too great to be passed over. My sins, your sins, my cowardice and fear, all the “if onlys” and regrets of sins committed and doubts expressed. Since they are all forgiven and covered by Jesus’ suffering and death for you, for me—then there’s hope and there’s joy enough to shake you free from whatever fear and gloom has a hold on your life!
“Go tell the disciples, and will see Him, just as He told you” becomes: “Go tell all the disciples, and Joshua and ___ and ___ and ____ and ____; you will see Him, just as He told you!” You! Forgiven, redeemed sinners. Ones for whom Christ died! He is not ashamed to call you His disciples again! Your Lord has gone before you to His grave, and His empty tomb now stands as a witness that death has no power over Him! And if in baptism we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His!” (Rom. 6:4-5).
May God grant that whether we’ve heard the news for the first time, or a thousand times, that it would ring with the same freshness and joy, for knowing that life and death are forever transformed by Jesus’ defeat of sin and death. Whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. 2,000 years may separate us from those first events and the recipients of that news, but the Risen Lord Jesus is just as truly present among us and near to us today as He promised: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matt. 18:20). “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Jesus is here, in His Word, in His Sacrament—the sacred last will and testament that He gave in remembrance of His sacrifice for us. That by celebrating this Supper continually, we “proclaim His death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). We wait for His return with newfound joy. Then we will see Him, just as He told us, with our own eyes. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).  With good news of forgiveness, of conquered death, and of everlasting life we wait for our faith to become sight on that great day of Jesus’ return. This news will never grow old or fade from the pages of history, but is living and powerful news, and is even now, this day, this year, creating and making lives new in Jesus. The news is this: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!” Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1.      Read Mark 16:1-8, the account of the women’s arrival at Jesus’ tomb. How did the women react to this unprecedented morning news? What makes for the enduring relevance and universal importance of this particular news of Jesus’ death and resurrection? How is this news “delivered” around the world?

2.      In what ways do we become dulled to the significance of this message? How do we overlook its importance for our lives?

3.      Why are Good Friday and Easter inseparably linked together? Why must we remember both together? What does Good Friday mean for us and our salvation? Easter? Romans 5:10; Heb. 9:11-28; 1 Cor. 15

4.      How must the sorrow of Good Friday affected the disciples of Jesus? How might such sorrow have affected their worship that Sabbath day? Has there been a time in your life where sorrow quenched your worship of God? How do the Psalms give answer to this grief? Read Psalm 42, especially vs. 4-5, 11. God also desires to hear our sorrows and griefs.

5.      How did the Resurrection of Jesus pull them out of the depths of their sorrows? Describe a time when your sorrow was transformed to joy. How must Peter have felt to know that he had been singled out for mention by the angel, to receive the good news? Mark 16:7. Why was this especially significant? Mark 14:66-72

6.      What does it mean for us that Jesus still desires to call us His disciples, and to bring the good news to us, despite our sins and failings? How are we promised to see Jesus also? Rom. 6:4-5; Matt. 5:8; Acts 1:11; Job 19:25-27. How can we keep from letting this news grow old?

Sermon on Jonah 4:1-11 for Good Friday, Jonah: The Survivor Series: Part 8: "The Answer"

The final sermon in the Lenten series adapted from Dr. Reed Lessing's series on Jonah the prophet. Dr. Lessing is professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. 

Once Robert Ingersoll, a famous atheist, delivered a dramatic challenge in a speech attacking the belief in God. He took out his watch and challenged God to prove that He exists and is almighty by striking Ingersoll dead within five minutes! First there was silence, then people became uneasy. Some left the hall, unable to take the nervous strain of the occasion, and one woman fainted. At the end of the allotted time, the atheist sneered, “See! There is no God. I am still very much alive!” After the lecture a young fellow said to a Christian lady, “Well, Ingersoll certainly proved something tonight!” Her reply was memorable. “Yes he did,” she said. “He proved God isn’t taking orders from atheists tonight.” How true!
God doesn’t take orders from anyone, even Jonah. God’s mercy, shown to the Assyrians frustrated Jonah to the point that he asks for death. If God is not going to give the Ninevites the judgment they deserve, he might as well die (370-74; 399-407). There are times we want to die. It’s an ugly example of self-pitying. Our thoughts can become so dark and self-absorbed that we don’t care about anything else. There’s also the fact that our sins mean we deserve to die. We’re so much like pitiful Jonah. In the middle of Jonah’s pleas to die, God grants new provisions for his life, in the form of the shade plant and the worm—which aim to teach him a life-saving lesson, and to save him from his evil, unforgiving heart (394-99). They awaken in Jonah a sense of pity. Pity for a tiny, fragile, passing thing. A pity that turned to ugly self-pity when the plant was taken away from him. What are the objects of our pity? What are the trivial things that make us miserable when they are taken away, so that our sight is blurred and our hearts are kept from true pity for fellow human beings, of far greater worth? God would stir pity in our hearts as well—no, far more than pity—compassion that wills to action and love. What are the objects of God’s pity? Of His compassion? Of His love?
God ignores Jonah’s pitiful pleas for death, but he does ask his prophet a rhetorical question that must have “shocked him out of his mind” and should shock us as well when we reflect on our own self-pitying (408). “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Then the narrative just ends!
We never learn Jonah’s answer, and the reason is that the LORD is not only posing the question to him back then, he is also asking us right now, “Shall I have compassion upon the great city of Nineveh?” And further: shall I have compassion on the sinners? And shall I have compassion on those you count as your enemies? Our answer is a nervous, shifting, “well maybe.” More to the point, the question is: “Shall I have compassion on you?” So what does the LORD do? He sends the answer. In Matthew 12:41 Jesus announces “One greater than Jonah is here.” And the narrative left off in Jonah begins anew in the life of Jesus! Jesus comes to give a sinful and wicked generation one great sign that they might believe in Him.
Jesus, the prophet greater than Jonah “looks over the great city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and weeps over it for their unwillingness to turn to Him (Lk. 19:41). He weeps for it as Jonah did not. Jesus hangs from the cross, looks down on a sinful world, and has compassion for us saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The Jonah narrative is a plea to us, to look together with Jesus at the world, to “‘see it through God’s eyes, and let his vision of mercy overcome [our] natural inclination toward revenge.’” To enlarge our heart to have compassion for others as Christ has for us...“Every person you see is someone Christ died to save” (394).
Compassion marked Jesus’ ministry. Jesus talked publicly with women, socialized with sinners, exorcized demons, healed the lame, and gave sight to the blind. Matthew 9:36 describes him with these words, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion – the Greek comes from the word splanknizomai – meaning he had a spleen, a gut, a heart for the people, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 15:32, “He called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people.’” His heart was open to the suffering and needs of the people around Him. He was moved from the depth of His ‘guts’ to love them, to love us! However unlovely we can at times become.
And who can fathom God’s willingness from before the creation of the world, to plan the birth of Judas, make iron for the nails, plant trees for the wood, and orchestrate all the events that led Pilate to Judea, Caiaphas to Jerusalem, and the crowds to repeatedly cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” That God steered all the events of creation and history to this astonishing and heart-wrenching climax—where Jesus would hang under judgment for sins that the world had committed. That God should bear the brutal assault of evil, and answer back only with love. That evil would exhaust all its hideous force in fury against Jesus—and be swallowed whole by the inexhaustible love of God.
Who can fathom the depths of God’s love, that He grants us every living breath we take, even in full knowledge of the sins and the wrongs that we have committed and will commit before we draw our last breath. He knows the grief it caused His Son. But still greater is the love that forgives us our sin and saves us from its depths. God asked: “Shall the LORD have compassion upon the great city of Nineveh?” The question echoes also to us: “Shall the LORD have compassion on a sinner like you? Like me?” Whatever answer Jonah gave, and whatever answer we give just now; the LORD’S final, definitive answer is proclaimed with his whole heart and written in Jesus Christ’s own blood on the cross. Jesus is the Father’s “yes” to compassion, yes to love, yes to full forgiveness; yes, yes, yes, a thousand times and forever yes! This is Good Friday and because of Jesus’ compassionate “yes” we survive the folly of our sin! In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

Sermon on Jonah 4:1-4, for Maundy Thursday (Lent 7), Jonah: The Survivor Series, Part 7: "On the Same Page"

The following Lenten series I will be preaching on is adapted from Dr. Reed Lessing's series on Jonah the prophet. Dr. Lessing is professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. 

Have you ever not been “on the same page” as someone? A new resident was walking down a street and noticed a man struggling with a washing machine at the doorway of his house. When the newcomer volunteered to help, the homeowner was overjoyed, and the two men together began to work and struggle with the bulky appliance. After several minutes of fruitless effort the two stopped and just stared at each other in frustration. Finally, when they had caught their breath, the first man said to the homeowner: “We’ll never get this washing machine in there!” To which the homeowner replied: “In? I’m trying to move it out of here!”
That was a definite communication breakdown. The truth is we only get things done when we are in agreement. We need to be either going in or going out. We have to be on the same page. Jonah had found that he was on a different page than his God. Chapter 3 had ended with the amazing success of God’s mission for the prophet Jonah—the feared and hated Assyrians had repented and believed in God, and so God spared them His wrath and destruction! Mission accomplished! But Jonah hated the Assyrians and they were easy to hate. So in chapter 4, rather than rejoicing over the repentance of over 120,000 lost sinners, Jonah is furious! In stronger words than our English translations express, it says that what had happened was “a great evil” to Jonah, and that he burned with anger! And he pours out His anger against God!
Now Jonah levels with God the real reason he ran away: “because I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” Jonah was angry with God because He forgave the Ninevites! Forgiveness? Nothing would have pleased Jonah more than to see the whole bunch of the Assyrians wiped off the earth. Those Assyrians may have mattered to God, but they didn’t matter to Jonah. Their cruelty was known throughout the world. And frankly, Jonah hated them! He did not want them blessed. They could be condemned forever as far as he was concerned. He had no desire to see these people turn from their sin. He wanted them to receive the judgment that they so richly deserved.
Jonah’s “ great evil” was an unforgiving heart (pp. 350-51; 357-62). Jonah’s shockingly ironic prayer of misery and self-pity shows him, “a servant of the true God and a member of the holiest land and nation, [to be] the worst and most grievous sinner, worse than the idolatrous heathen!” (Luther). Jonah and the LORD were on a completely different page. One was condemning; the other was forgiving. The LORD moved them to repentance and followed it with the gospel (pp. 353-56; 367-70). Jonah doesn’t want God to be like this. Well, not exactly. Jonah wants God to be gracious and merciful and loving, only to him and the people he cares about! He doesn’t want God to love his enemies, the Ninevites! He wants those terrible, pagan enemies of Israel, to get it in the neck!
By the end of the story, Jonah becomes a difficult character to love. His bitterness and self-pity and jealousy of God’s grace makes him a tough person to like. But we must painfully admit that we’ve got the same sin-nature as old Jonah. So often we’re quite happy that God is merciful and gracious to us. We’re eternally blessed that the Lord has undying love for our friends and family. But there are some people…we can't figure out what God could love about them. There are some people we find it awfully hard to love. We start to sound a lot like Jonah—gladly accepting God’s grace for us, but begrudging the same grace to our enemies! We’re reminded of a central principle of our faith. “God so loved the world …” God’s love to the loveless shown…that they might lovely be. God gets His love into us by loving us in the way Jonah correctly described Him: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” He loves us in this way, that our loveless hearts of stone might melt and become compassionate like His. Jesus taught us not just to love those who were easy to love—our friends and family—but our enemies as well!
The movie, Forrest Gump, is well-known for its quotes. But an often overlooked line comes from a scene where one of the central characters, Jenny, returns to her old home after her father had died; the old farm house is dilapidated and abandoned. As she reflects on the sexual abuse that she endured as a child, she is overcome by rage and begins throwing rocks at the house. Jenny finally falls to the ground in exhaustion, and the scene closes with Forrest Gump saying, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” There will never be enough rocks because revenge doesn’t work!
Who was at the first Passover? There were James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” who had asked Jesus if they could call fire down on an unrepentant village. There was Peter, who would have turned Jesus away from His cross, were it not for the sharp rebuke “get behind me Satan!” There was Matthew, the former tax collector, a profession tainted by its dishonest practices. There were disciples who had turned the little children away from Jesus, thinking they were a nuisance. There was Thomas who would doubt the resurrection. And then there was Judas Iscariot. The very disciple who would sell Jesus into the hands of sinful men for the ‘lordly price’ of thirty pieces of silver. Judas the betrayer, the one who had secretly stolen from the money purse entrusted to him for Jesus’ and the disciples’ charity work.
Judas and Jesus were not on the same page, for sure! But just as God continued to love Jonah with his vindictive and unlovable heart, so in Christ he continued to love not only Judas, but all of his disciples, none of whom was yet on the same page as the Savior. Even with their sinful hearts, at times proud and arrogant, set on glory, at times timid and fearful and doubting—He loved them earnestly, and He loved them to the end. His heart yearned for them, even as He knew the hour was shortly coming when they would all fall away from Him and run in fear from His betrayal and arrest. That Peter would betray Him. That He would suffer in prison alone.
Yet here He put in their sinful hands, His body and His blood, giving them to eat and drink as He laid down His life for their forgiveness. He instituted a new meal, a new testament or contract in His blood—to be done in remembrance of Him. Soon they would see His love, even for His enemies, on full display at His cross. For some it is too painful even to watch. To see that love could be so great as to even overcome pure hatred. To see that love of Jesus that could penetrate our cold and unfeeling hearts, and turn them to love others just as He first loved us!
We’ve said that its necessary to be on the same page. In fact, all people are on the same page, the page of the Bible in Romans 3 that says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) All stand guilty. All need a Savior. And so we put away our grudges and thoughts of revenge, and come to the table that the LORD has prepared for us. And here, in the real presence of Jesus, we not only survive our grudges, we overcome them in the power of his broken body and shed blood for our forgiveness!

Monday, April 02, 2012

Sermon on Zechariah 9:9-12 for Palm Sunday, "Prisoners of Hope!"

Sermon Outline: 
1.      Palm Sunday, Holy Week, looking down the path that Jesus journeyed to the cross. We watch our king enter Jerusalem, Last Supper, Good Friday. Do we turn our eyes from that shameful death on the cross, or do we look to Him and breathe out our humble prayer of repentance and thanksgiving, that He suffered that for us?
2.      “Rejoice greatly! O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” How should the heart rejoice at the sign of Jesus’ coming? “Our hearts should jump for joy. Our spirits should hop with rejoicing. Our tongues should be speaking praises. For this King does not bring just any ordinary benefit. That’s why also this joy should not just be any ordinary joy, but rather a special joy. It is written in Neh. 8:10: For the joy in the Lord is your strength. However, he is not referring here to some worldly joy. Instead, it refers to a spiritual joy of the inward man when our soul and spirit—with heartfelt contemplation of the great benefits which we have in Christ” (Gerhard).
3.      Our joy that Jesus comes to us continually in His Word and Sacraments. Jesus comes in the humble, rejectable forms of His Word, of lowly water, of simple bread and wine. Yet here He offers Himself to us, that we would receive Him into our hearts with glad shouts of praise and thanksgiving.
4.      Prophecy and palm procession is a royal scene, like a king riding into the capital to His coronation, rise to His throne. Solomon’s crowning, Jehu’s ascent to the throne. Jesus’ mount. The people’s acclaim “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
5.      But Jesus’ path to coronation, to His throne went directly through the cross. No golden crown, but a crown of thorns. No jeweled scepter, but a reed given in mocking. The loyalty quickly vanished, the crowds cries quickly turned, from the king they hoped for to the king they despised and rejected.
6.      Reign unlike any other. Sacrificial love, humility, peace that comes by speaking. His Word brings peace…disarms the hatred, the enmity of the heart. Prepares a way for God within.
7.      What did they miss about Jesus’ kingship, that so many rejected Him? His suffering, humility, the extent of His kingdom “from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” All nations, those who call on Him as Lord and King, are His citizens and subjects. Heirs to His kingdom. Missed that His kingdom would come through “the blood of my covenant with you.” His contract, His promise with them of freedom, restoration of the kingdom, of peace and salvation. Shedding His blood, the price of the covenant, the sealing of God’s contract of forgiveness, the guarantee of prisoners set free.
8.      Disciples and the crowds laid down their cloaks. Sign of obedience, love, rendered service, humility. Recognition of kingship. How do we lay down our cloaks before Him? Give of our material goods for His kingdom, lay down our lives, humility, service to His kingship. “Nothing in our hearts actually fights more fiercely against Christ’s kingdom of grace than the rule of the sinful flesh. So if you then allow the sinful flesh to rule in you, then Christ’s kingdom of grace can no longer make an entrance into you. One ruler must be given a leave of absence; it’s not possible for a person to simultaneously allow two opposing lords to have the upper hand--one has to be disregarded (Matt. 6:24).” Gerhard. Give our sinful flesh a leave of absence. Acknowledge Christ as Lord.
9.      Amazing words: “prisoners of hope.” Would expect no hope for prisoners. But people under sin, death, loneliness, fear, longing for freedom—called to hope. Called to look to the One who shattered the prison chains. Jesus, our King who goes before us, who Himself became a prisoner, so that we might be prisoners of hope. Many OT examples—NT Paul and Silas singing. God would deliver—this was their hope. God was their stronghold or refuge. Jesus bore the chains, the mockery, the beating, the death, for us. He rose from the grave showing victory, triumph. The “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem would be followed by an even more triumphant exit, when He ascended from the hill in Bethany, the same place where He began His journey into Jerusalem on the donkey, now He ascends to His rightful throne, right hand of the Father. Crown of thorns, suffering, shame exchanged for a crown of glory, power, eternal life. We’re prisoners of hope—captive to the joy of the Lord, which is our strength—captive to the love of God that has set us free by His blood of the covenant! Rejoice greatly! Shout aloud! Christ is your King! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Mark 11:1-11 about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. How was this an intentional fulfillment of the words of the prophet Zechariah (520-518 BC), in Zech. 9:9-12? What were the characteristics of the King and His coming reign?

  1. What were the “kingly” actions that surrounded this event? 1 Kings 1:33-40; 2 Ki. 9:13; Ps. 118:25-26. The scene looks like a king riding to His coronation. What crown would Jesus wear? Why did many then abandon Him? How did the path to His coronation intersect with suffering and imprisonment?

  1. What does it mean for us to “lay down our cloaks” for Jesus? Read Eph. 4:22; Jude 23; Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:5. How is repentance a humbling of ourselves, and a laying aside of our pride? How is laying down our material possessions for the Lord a sign of obedience and service to Him?

  1. Jerusalem received Jesus with palms and praises. How does Christ come to us today, and how do we properly receive Him? Look at the hymn verse: “Then cleansed be ev’ry life from sin; make straight the way for God within, and let us all our hearts prepare, for Christ to come and enter there.” (LSB 344:2)

  1. Zech. 9:11-12 describes “prisoners of hope.” What does this mean? How are we “prisoners of hope”? What other examples of “prisoners of hope” can you find in the Bible? Read their stories: Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, the 12 disciples, Peter, Paul and Silas, etc. How does Scripture speak comfort to the prisoners? Ps. 69:33; 102:18-22; 107:10-16; Is. 42:6-7.  How did Christ become one with us, as a “prisoner of hope?”

Sermon on Jonah 3:5-10, for Lent 6, "Jonah: The Survivor Series Part 6: 'About Face!'”

The following Lenten series I will be preaching on is adapted from Dr. Reed Lessing's series on Jonah the prophet. Dr. Lessing is professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. 

If this has happened once, it has happened a billion times. A husband and wife are in a car, and the wife tells her husband to turn right at the next junction, and by mistake, he turns left. When he realizes what he has done, he says to his wife “I’m sorry love, I went the wrong way.” But if that is all he does, it isn’t enough. His saying sorry isn’t getting them any closer to where they want to be; it isn’t even stopping them from getting further away. To get where they want to be, he needs to stop the car, turn it around and go back on to the correct road that his wife told him to take in the first place. That is repentance; it is an about-face!
The people of Nineveh are a powerful, arrogant, violent, wicked people. Jonah is a little guy from a weak nation at the edge of their soon to be empire. They might have strung him up from condemning their fine city. But they don’t. They listen to him. Mind you, it might be easier to listen to a prophet who has recently spent the last three days in the belly of a fish. His skin, hair, and clothing may have been bedraggled, and there is a dried up piece of kelp hanging off his ear. I might listen to a guy like that who says: “Repent, or God will do to you what he did to me!”
Seriously though, whether Jonah showed up like that, or he cleaned himself up a little before arriving, the people hear his message and believe it. They recognize that they’d been doing great evil, and they repent. While we see just a little regret in Jonah for his disobedience, his flight from God in his request to be thrown overboard, and his prayer in the belly of the fish, the Ninevites demonstrate the greatest example of corporate repentance that we find in the Bible. They hear Jonah and spontaneously respond in faith. They declare a fast, they remove their clothes, put sackcloth on their bodies and ashes on their heads and go about mourning. This fast of regret and mourning is complete in that from the least person in the city, to the greatest, they all fast. Even the king, when he hears the news of their impending doom, gets off his throne, removes his royal robes, puts on sackcloth, and sits down in the dust. In all humility and contrition, he trades his robes for rags and his throne for the dirt.
He sets a royal decree that wasn’t needed. He told the people to do what they were already doing; to fast and wear rags. He extends the fast not just to people, but to the animals as well. Nineveh goes from this powerful, arrogant, wicked city to become a city of massive mourning. You couldn’t hear yourself think in Nineveh in those days! Have you ever heard a hungry cow? All of Nineveh’s cows and sheep and horses would have been complaining loudly, the people would have been sitting in the streets calling out to God to forgive them, babies would have been crying for their mothers to feed them! What racket!
God empowers a change of heart, and a change in behavior. The king doesn’t just call the people to fast and mourn, he calls for a change in behavior. He says in v. 8: “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.” The Ninevites repent and believe (pp. 299-307).
God empowers an about-face. J. Edwin Orr, a professor of Church history has described the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Welsh Revivals of the nineteenth century. As people repented they did all they could to confess their wrong-doing and to make restitution. But it unexpectedly created serious problems for the shipyards along the coast of Wales. Over the years workers had stolen all kinds of things, from wheelbarrows to hammers. However, as people repented, they started to return what they had taken, with the result that soon the shipyards of Wales were overwhelmed with returned property. There were such huge piles of returned tools that several of the yards put up signs that read, “If you have been led by God to return what you have stolen, please know that the management forgives you and wishes you to keep what you have taken.”
Can you imagine if that type of repentance came upon our town, state, or nation? It might do a number on our economic system! The repentance that we see in Nineveh is nothing short of a miracle. It is impossible even to imagine that Nineveh would repent at the sound of this reluctant prophet’s voice. It was a miracle, but not impossible for God. In the same way, when we repent of our sin, it is a miracle in our hearts that we have heard the gospel and responded positively. Nineveh’s change evoked the LORD’S change (pp. 324-41). Our God changes from condemnation to grace, finally for the sake of Christ. What an awesome and lifegiving about face!!! It means we survive!
Author Ken Sande tells the story of Thomas Edison’s ability to delegate big tasks when others would have refused. When Edison and his staff were developing the incandescent light bulb, it took hundreds of hours to manufacture a single bulb. One day, after finishing a bulb, Edison handed it to a young errand boy and asked him to take it upstairs to the testing room. As the boy turned and started up the stairs, he stumbled and fell, and the bulb shattered on the steps. Instead of rebuking the boy, Edison reassured him and then turned to his staff and told them to start working on another bulb. When it was completed several days later, Edison demonstrated the reality of his forgiveness in the most powerful way possible. He walked over to the same boy, handed him the bulb, and said, “Please take this up to the testing room.” Sande then comments: “Imagine how that boy must have felt. I can imagine that he was a nervous wreck. And I do not doubt that Edison was also a nervous wreck. But that is not how it is with you and God! When God forgives the past, it is gone. There is no nervousness. There is no worry: ‘What if I mess up again?’ There is only the peace and joy of knowing that the past is forgiven and the future is full of the promise of our crucified and resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ, who creates all things, including you, new!