Monday, June 25, 2012

Sermon on Luke 1:57-80, the Nativity of John the Baptist, "Heavenly Visitor"

Sermon Outline:
1.      Nativity of John—not celebrated for the sake of the saint, but for the sake of the Greater One whom he gave his life in service to: Jesus. Also because he draws people to Christ. Sandals. John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Living in the shadow of another. John welcomed it, accepted his diminishing role. It was all for the glory of Christ.
2.      Family, friends, and neighbors rejoiced together with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah’s song/prophecy, glorifying God. Song tells more about Christ and God than about John. So also our lives as saints of God should seek to give glory to God, and not ourselves. Arresting words: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” What does it mean that God has visited His people?
3.      Or what would it mean to say that we live on a “visited planet?” Modern fascination with extraterrestrials (lit. from outside earth). “Have we been visited?” Search for artifacts, eyewitnesses, tune in for extraterrestrial communications. Alien visitors. But this is quite different from what I mean when I say we live on a visited planet. Our visitor indeed came from outside this earth in one sense—John said of Jesus (3:31), “He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.” Jesus is truly a heavenly visitor. As crowds saw His miracles, they said, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16). And we overlook the uniquely divine communication that God delivers in His Word and in the person of Jesus Christ!
4.      God visiting His people is literally God coming in human flesh, in the birth and life of Jesus Christ. Therefore not “alien” or foreign to our existence, but in our very own flesh and blood. The very God who intimately made us in His own image, the God who knew us even before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139). In Him we live, move, and have our being. So the miracle of this “visit” is that God He came down, not just in a disguise, but truly assuming the human nature of Jesus into His divinity, so that He was God and man in one person. Not a trick, not a charade, not an alien in the uncomfortable clothes of a human being, but truly one with the creation He had so carefully made in His image.
5.      God joined Himself back to the image of God He had first imprinted on mankind. As Col. 2:9 says, “In Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” And in 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” But as Jesus came to us, there was a problem. Humanity, made to reflect and show forth God’s image, had become fallen and corrupt. The image was shattered and distorted, like a broken mirror. The reflection no longer clear, though God Himself was unchanged. Only shades of the former glory were left. But Jesus came as our visitor in order that He might redeem us. Not a visit to inspect us for proposed destruction (cf. Sodom and Gomorrah), but rather it was a visit with a precise and powerful purpose. To buy back and restore the broken, shattered, sin-ruined creation. To buy back sinners who were a shattered reflection of the glory God intended us to be. To pay His life-blood as the price, so we could be delivered from the hand of our enemies, of sin, death, and the devil, and be presented before Him to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
6.      This is the gracious, redeeming kind of visit spoken of in Exodus 4:31, when God saw the affliction of the Israelites in Egypt, and “The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped.” Again, God’s visiting of His people was cause for reverence and worship of God. It was a redeeming, not a destroying visit. Just like Zechariah celebrating God’s visitation, just like the people in awe of Jesus’ miracles. God’s visit in Jesus was to save His people.
7.      The notion of a visitor also carries with it the idea of someone temporary or transitory. Someone who it’s anticipated will move on. Coming and going. But this is quite different from the kind of visitor that Jesus is. He promises His disciples: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20) and “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Jesus, while not visibly in our sight, is nevertheless truly present, and has not abandoned us. He has not “moved on” but is our ever-present Savior.
8.      Zechariah’s song praises God’s salvation. Redemption and salvation are two closely related Biblical terms: redemption gives the sense of being “bought back” from slavery, from enemies, from captivity. Salvation is a word of deliverance. Being rescued from what harms or endangers us. God’s redemption, or salvation of His people always involves His deliverance from the hand of our enemies, and those who hate us. Enemies in the NT are those who are hostile to God and His Christ. Enemies of God also include especially spiritual enemies—death and the devil. But also of human enemies, we’re reminded by Romans 5:10 “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” Our natural state before redemption/salvation was enemies of God. While they are still living, enemies of God remain targets or better objects of His love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus is on a constant rescue mission to reconcile enemies to His Father.
9.      But if they persist in hostility to God and reject their only hope of salvation in Jesus Christ, they close the door to God’s mercy and their self-chosen lot is God’s wrath instead. Not because God would not have them, but because they would not have Him and His Christ.
10.  Jesus’ deliverance from our enemies is so we can serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness. To have the knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of our sins. That is that God rescues us for a godly life, seeking after God and His love, and living in the knowledge of our forgiveness. Only in the forgiveness of our sins by Jesus do we know salvation. In no other way can we be saved. Our sins are the deadly enemy that Jesus faced and dealt with, so we could be “holy and righteous” in His sight. With our sins, we can’t stand before God. But Jesus shed His life-blood as the price to redeem or buy us back from our sins. Brings us back to the reason for God’s visit in the first place—to redeem, not destroy His people.
11.  And this should again be the cause for our celebration and rejoicing. To join in Zechariah’s song to lift up a blessing to our God, and celebrate all that He has given and promised us. John the Baptist’s birth was the talk of the town as people celebrated with Zechariah. So also for us, the news of Jesus’ visitation and redemption of us, His people, should be the talk of the town. Let it be known that we have been visited from on high, and that Jesus our Heavenly Visitor has come to bring us His life and knowledge of salvation! Amen.

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

  1. For examples of Zechariah’s song (sometimes called the Benedictus) used in the living song of the church, see LSB 226, 238, 936.
  2. How is the remembrance of John the Baptist really about celebrating Jesus, the greater One he came to serve? How does Zechariah’s song proclaim Christ?
  3. What does it mean to say that we live on a “visited planet?” Describe what Luke 1:68 means that God has “visited and redeemed his people.” How is this visitation different from other examples of “divine visitation” in the Old Testament? Gen. 11:5-6; 18:20-21. What was the purpose of Jesus’ “visit?”
  4. In what way is Jesus intimately connected to humankind, so that He is not something utterly foreign to or “alien” to us? John 1:1-13; Col. 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:49; Gen. 1:27
  5. How does Jesus secure redemption and salvation for us? Luke 1:71, 74-75, 77; John 1:29. How does this free us to serve Him “without fear”? What things might we fear in life? How are we delivered from these fears and given courage to face the spiritual battlefield of our lives?
  6. In verse 71 and 74, who are our enemies, or God’s enemies? Luke 19:27; Phil. 3:18; Acts 13:10; Luke 10:18-19; How was that our natural condition before our salvation? Rom. 5:10. What is God’s aim for those who are presently His enemies? Matt. 5:43-48. If they finally close the door to His mercy, and persist in hostility or enmity toward God, what is their self-chosen lot? 1 Cor. 15:25-26; Matt. 10:33
  7. How is the Word light for us? How does Jesus guide us to peace?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, "The Automatic Seed"

            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. We live in an automated age. A long list of conveniences relieve the drudgery of daily work, or simplify our daily tasks. We have automatic dishwashers to do our dishes, automatic sprinklers to water our yards, autopilot mechanisms that steer airplanes over long flights, automatic self-cleaning ovens, automatic coffee machines, automatic apps that send our pictures and files into “the Cloud”, and all sorts of other modern innovations that supposedly simplify our lives. Well in today’s reading we discover a much older innovation, a much older “automatic system” that has been at work for ages. It is the kingdom of God. How is it automatic, you ask?
            Jesus tells a parable, that the kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed on the ground. Waking and sleeping, the farmer passes his days, and the seed sprouts and grows, but not by his knowledge or observation. Then in verse 28 our translations say: “The earth produces by itself.” By itself is the Greek word: automatic. Of course “automatic” means “by itself.” But did we ever stop to think how God’s kingdom really operates? That God Himself is at work, and that He has invested His power and potential and energy into the seed that grows His kingdom?! Think how a natural seed has the information, the plant’s DNA, quietly locked inside as it lies dormant, waiting for the day when it’s planted in the soil. It has all the potential and capacity to grow into whatever plant it came from. For the mustard seed, it has the capacity to grow into a sprawling, bushy, leafy green tree with spreading branches the birds can nest in. For the kingdom of God, the seed comes from God Himself, and contains His information—i.e. the Word—and this contains all the instructions and potential for the growth and spread of His kingdom.
            So when the Word of God, that “automatic seed,” is planted, it grows into the kingdom of God. The Word of God is the “information” that makes the kingdom grow. It is the great good news of salvation, the Word of what God has done for us, so that we might know it and believe it. It’s life-saving information, it’s information that is powerful to deliver what it speaks. Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins! And you are forgiven! Jesus rose from the dead to bring us eternal life! And life eternal is yours! The Word of God is also invested with God’s power and potential. Jesus, who spoke this Word of life doesn’t have to be visibly present in order for His Word to accomplish its work. Yet neither is Jesus absent, as He Himself is present in His Word, and working through it. Just like the farmer plants the seed, and then goes about His daily work until the time of harvest, so also the Word of God works automatically in an unseen and mysterious way. The growth doesn’t happen because of our anxious observation, it isn’t aided by our digging around the seed to see if it’s sprouted yet. It isn’t rushed along by our sweating and nudging. But rather it grows because Jesus is at work in His Word.
            God’s Word is planted in people’s hearts. Yours, mine, and all who hear the Word. We’re all part of the mission of scattering that seed out to new soil. It falls where it will, without discrimination. And then the automatic action of the Spirit and the Word takes over. When the Word sprouts and grows in our hearts, faith in Jesus comes alive and we become living members of His church. Many seeds have been planted, and many more are being planted every day. Every time the Word of God, the Good News of salvation in Jesus is spoken, another seed drops into the soil. It lands in someone’s heart. Jesus, the planter, will return when the harvest is ready. Then He will gather in the fruit of the harvest, bringing all believers into His heavenly kingdom.
            This parable takes aim at our problem with patience. Quite often we lack the kind of “kingdom patience” that remembers that God gives the growth spontaneously through the power He has invested in the Word. We’re not in control of the sprouting of the seed or the growing of the seed to maturity. The author Eugene Peterson describes the kind of patience God’s kingdom involves. Impatience, he says, is a refusal to endure, or to wait. It’s a rushed hurry to see immediate results or progress.
            But he says the patience that Scripture teaches us is a “giant sequoia patience.” How long did it take for the giant sequoia to grow? Have you ever stood at the foot of a sequoia, or some other comparably massive and ancient tree, and pondered how many centuries it took to grow to its full height and girth? Or how many bustling and busy forest animals and birds raced up and down its trunk and through its branches, and across its roots, while it slowly, methodically grew year by year? Peterson says that God’s kingdom “ignites a sense of urgency [in us], but it quenches shortcuts and hurry, for the times are in God’s hands.” God’s kingdom is like a giant sequoia that has been planted, and grows through generation after generation. Or better, as Jesus said, like a mustard tree that grows up and sprawls outward. The kingdom is in constant growth, but the growth is measurable more on the scale of tree ring-years, not minutes and hours. This is not to say that the operation of God’s kingdom is always slow, but to again acknowledge that it happens in God’s timing. For example, a missionary may work for years with no visible evidence of success, yet may in a short period of time see a sudden flourishing of God’s kingdom around him as God determines the time for His planted Word to sprout and grow.
            Sometimes we want too much to be in control of the results of God’s Word when it is at work. We’re concerned about the timing and the results. We want to measure and track its progress. We want to hurry to the harvest. We want to know when someone will believe. But Jesus says that when the harvest is ready, He immediately sends the sickle. God doesn’t miss His timing. In fact part of our problem, is trying to put God on our time, instead of living on His. I like those T-shirts that say, “I stay on Hawaiian time.” They should make another one that says, “I stay on God’s time.” In God’s time we may or may not see the seed sprout. In God’s time there might be a whole lot of waiting (and agonizing—not that it helps—that’s our problem) before His Word takes effect. In God’s time the Word might work in such a fast and surprising way, that you never could have expected it. God’s time is simply that—His own. The sooner we appreciate and accept that, the more at peace we will be with letting His Word do its work.
            Since God’s Word and kingdom does work in this way, we are freed to have the “giant sequoia patience” that realizes God is planting a tree. His kingdom will grow and flourish at its own pace, and under His power and operation. This relieves us from the frenzy and anxiety of thinking that the “kingdom building” falls on us, and that without our efforts the seed won’t sprout. But neither is it an invitation to inactivity, as though we have nothing do. We should always be about the work of scattering more seed. Broadcasting the Word of God to new soil, new hearts, hoping that it will find a place there. But entrusting the results completely to God, and resting in the knowledge that we have faithfully carried out our duty in telling the Word. And it is also a call to prayer, as we pray “thy kingdom come”—knowing that God’s kingdom comes “by itself (automatically!!) even without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may come among us also.” So we actively engage in prayer for God’s kingdom to come among us. That Jesus’ Word would work, grow, and bear fruit among us. And again with prayer, the results are in God’s hands, not ours.
            All of this frees us from the disappointment that sometimes occurs when we don’t see immediate results. Life in the church has its shortcomings and disappointments. Sometimes the growth of the kingdom around us doesn’t look too impressive. Sometimes believers let each other down and we wonder if God is really at work. Sometimes we see more sinner than saint in ourselves and each other. Sometimes we make bold and impassioned attempts to get the Word out, and yet it seems as though the message falls flat. Or no one is there to listen. Hearts may seem cold and unchanged. Sometimes we ache with the question of why our family member or friend, with whom we have shared the gospel, has not yet believed. Or has gone astray.
            But when we have entrusted the results to God, we’re freed from this disillusionment—with ourselves, our efforts, the community of faith, with those who haven’t yet believed, or even with the expected growth of God’s kingdom. We’re freed from the illusion that we were in control of any of it. We’re freed to turn it back over to God and rest in the knowledge that God’s method of working is like the growth of a plant or tree. Invisible, spontaneous, and mysterious. And we recall how that Word brought us and others into the kingdom—it’s through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us and our salvation! That message brought us into the kingdom, when His seed sprouted and took root in our hearts. For some it happened quickly, for others it took many years. Have the same patience with others.
            This kingdom that Jesus planted does have a final goal. Each day leads and draws us closer to that day of harvest, the last day, when the grain is full and ripe and the sickle brings in the wheat. The day when the Lord returns with His angels to bring in the full harvest. Not a day late, not a day too soon, all on God’s time. We know the plan, we know the outcome, we know that Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place in heaven, we know that His death on the cross and resurrection are what bring us there. The challenge of faith is to realize and believe that God is working out this purpose even now, to see that His kingdom is growing and enlarging, scattering and taking new life, even as sometimes we see no earthly evidence of it. Even when the church and its efforts seem meager and small. Even when we sinners in the church struggle and pray, and fear that our efforts have gone to waste. Through such small beginnings, and through seemingly humble progress, God’s kingdom will grow to achieve its great and universal goal, to bring God’s “absolute and unchallenged reign…over His people.” Like the humble mustard seed that grows into a sprawling and leafy tree, God’s kingdom and His Word may not seem like much when it’s sown, but just wait for it to reach its full glory and splendor!
            All this will happen through the marvelous automatic growth and power that Jesus invested in His Word. This should give us great and certain confidence in God’s Word and what it can accomplish, even when we don’t understand how it is possible. Automatic appliances and conveniences may or may not truly simplify our lives. Sometimes they only add additional layers of complexity. But the greatest innovation of God’s kingdom, His automatic seed, the Word, truly does simplify our lives. It brings us the peace of knowing Jesus Christ, the peace of sins forgiven full and free, not by our effort, but by the great effort and love of our God. Like a shady mustard tree spreading its branches, His kingdom brings us a place of shelter and security. Like birds nested in its branches, we don’t need to be driven by the worries or cares of this world, but can rest in the carefree knowledge that God is our provider. And it simplifies the work of evangelism and missions, knowing that all we have to do is get the Word out, and that marvelous seed and God’s Spirit will do the rest. God is truly at work in all of our lives and in our church. May we grow in our humble acceptance of this truth, and in the process gain a giant sequoia-like patience that trusts that God’s kingdom will grow to completion in His own timing. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. What is “automatic” about the kingdom of God? Read Mark 4:26-29. What is it that has this power invested in it, to operate by itself in people’s hearts? Re-read the parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-9. How has God invested His power into His Word? Isaiah 45:10-11
  2. What is the “information” that gives the Word of God it’s saving and life-giving power? I.e. what is the message? Retell in a simple way what Jesus has done, in a way that you could share with someone else.
  3. How does the fact that the seed grows without our observation or understanding change the way that you think about your role in bringing someone to faith? Does it relieve your anxiety? Make you more eager to share the Word and let it do its work? Make you trust more in God’s ability to work even when we don’t understand?
  4. What does impatience cause us to do? What is the kind of patience that the kingdom of God teaches us? Describe the longer view of the kingdom and its growth. What kind of objectives does God have?
  5. How does God determine when the harvest is ready? Will we know the time? Matthew 24:14, 32-36.
  6. How should we be “broadcasting” the seed? How is the growth of God’s kingdom an invitation to prayer? Matthew 6:10
  7. What disappointments and disillusionments does the parable about the growth of God’s kingdom free us from? In the daily life of the church, what outward signs seem to question the growth? What is the surprise in the end, about the church and it’s humble beginnings? Cf. the mustard seed. How does it all simplify our life in the church?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon on Mark 3:20-35, for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Our Stronger Lord!"

            In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Are you familiar with the old-fashioned pastime of whittling? Carving a small, rough design out of a piece of wood? In grade school art we once carved a little dog out of a bar of Ivory Soap. As you whittle away, you carve off the pieces and edges that you see as undesirable, working down to find the shape you envision, locked inside the block of wood, or soap, or whatever you’re carving.
            We’re tempted, all too often, to take the same approach to the Holy Bible, to God, and even Jesus Christ. We approach them like a block of wood, looking for the “real image” we have in our own mind, and we’re the whittlers with the knife, cutting away and shaping what we deem undesirable, so that we’re left with the God that we want. Smooth out the rough parts, knock down the sharp edges, sculpt Jesus until He’s mild and tame. We might find today’s reading to be an example of the sharp edges. Jesus sharply confronts His adversaries, casts out demons, warns of the unforgivable sin, and then proceeds to give seemingly a cold shoulder to His own family members who are trying to reach Him. Doesn’t seem to fit our nice, friendly picture. Instead we run into a roughness and brutal honesty about Jesus that is more than we expected.
            It’s easy enough to pass over these verses and find Jesus’ more tender moments with children, or with the healing of the sick, or the forgiving of a sinner. We try to ignore or explain away the confrontations, or simply skip over them. There’s a couple of ways to describe this activity. One of them would be “marketing Jesus.” Another would be making God in our own image. But the most accurate description would be idolatry. Turning God into something that He isn’t, or redefining Him to our wishes. But Jesus won’t conform to our wishes, nor will His Word be bent for our desires. The Scriptures present us with the multi-faceted, unbendable, untamable Jesus, who won’t crouch down into our boxes, or be leveled out according to our desires.
            As the writer Eugene Peterson warns against attempts to remake Jesus, he says, “Every omitted detail of Jesus, so carefully conveyed to us by the Gospel writers, reduces Jesus. We need the whole Jesus. The complete Jesus. Everything He said. Every detail of what He did.” We dare not reduce Jesus or omit His Words. We need them all, even and especially the words that challenge us, ruffle us, unsettle us. Because otherwise we’re mistaking ourselves to be the potter, and God the clay. As though we’re the ones doing the shaping! God is quick to inform us, however, that it’s exactly the reverse! We’re the lump of clay, we’re the block of wood or even stone that has the undesirable parts that God is shaping away, sculpting into His design, making into a useful vessel. Yet quite often, we even resist His shaping, and put up a struggle.
            Some of the crowds weren’t quite ready to accept Jesus as He was presenting Himself. Maybe part of what made them and even us uncomfortable with some of Jesus’ bolder confrontations is that He isn’t fooled by any appearances. He sees right through pretensions, to our very heart. His family members started to get embarrassed by Him, concerned with the overwhelming crowds and the ruckus that seemed to be following Him around. Or maybe it was their family reputation they were concerned about. John 7:5 tells us that not even His brothers believed in Him. But whatever their motivation, they tried twice unsuccessfully to pull Him out of the crowd, take Him aside, apparently wanting to “talk some sense” into Him. Jesus rebuffed their efforts. His family ties gave way to something far more important to Him—the disciples around Him, the community, who heard His Word and did the will of God. He wasn’t going to silence His ministry for the special pleading of His family, even if they were His flesh and blood. The kingdom of God and the community faith were of greater importance.
            Still others, the scribes sent from Jerusalem, were openly hostile to Jesus. This was one ugly confrontation in a series of confrontations that showed more and more their hatred of Jesus even as they couldn’t deny His teachings and miracles. As the Gospels advance toward Jesus’ crucifixion, the confrontations grow increasingly heated and more numerous, as they test Jesus, try to trap Him, spy on Him, find fault with Him, and eventually begin plotting for His death. Here they denounced Jesus in the strongest terms they could find, calling His works of healings, and casting out demons the work of the devil. They said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “ by the prince of demons He casts out the demons!”
            Beelzebul was the name for an idol the Philistines worshipped in the OT. The name meant “lord of the house” but was mockingly nicknamed “Beelzebub” by the Israelites, which means “lord of the flies” or “god of dung”. It was a term of contempt, an insult to the false god they worshipped. Here Jesus’ enemies are using it contemptuously to say He is possessed by this Beelzebul, i.e. the devil. They were hateful words against Jesus, pure and simple.
            Jesus first dismantles their accusation, by showing that Satan cannot war against himself, and that if driving out demons was the work of the devil, then his kingdom or house would soon collapse and fall. A divided house cannot stand. Why would Satan undermine His own work? The upswing of this then, is that if Jesus wasn’t healing people and driving out demons by the power of Satan, then of course it was by the hand of God! And then what on earth were they doing resisting Him and calling it the work of the devil? Their sin grew all the worse.
            Jesus then says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Here, balanced in two short verses, Jesus speaks of incredible forgiveness, that is able to forgive all sins and even blasphemies against the Son (see Matt. 12; Lk. 12), but also gives a dire warning to those who would blaspheme the Holy Spirit, that this will be an eternally unforgivable sin. So what exactly is this unforgivable sin, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Blasphemy, as John MacArthur explains, is the worst sin in the Bible because it’s a sin directly against God, with no other motive than to dishonor God. It’s a pure and simple act of defiance against God, worse even than murder or adultery or any other “big sin” you might name, according to the Bible. It’s a direct assault on the Holy God.
            In the case of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it was to call God’s good and wonderful act of healing and freeing a person—delivering them from Satan’s power—to call it a wicked and evil thing, to call the work of the Holy Spirit the devil’s work. Thus it flagrantly rejects His work, even though the Holy Spirit has brought conviction of God’s truth. For this one sin, there is no forgiveness, FOREVER, Jesus says. It is the hardening of a heart so hard against God, that it utterly rejects the work of the Holy Spirit, and not only won’t allow faith to take root, but viciously attacks God’s work as evil. Jesus severe warning to the scribes was a huge, bold billboard warning those about to hurtle off a cliff into never-ending guilt (Piper). Had they gone over already? Had they already committed this sin? This was a shocking jolt to rescue any who had not yet sealed their fate in their rejection of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus’ redeeming work.
            This passage has caused a lot of fear and anxiety for many dear Christians, who’ve wondered if at some point in their life they might’ve committed the unforgivable sin. Perhaps in a period of rebellion when they said they hated God, or because of angry and abusive words that they spoke against God during a difficult time in life. Or perhaps in their thoughts, they fear that somehow they may have sinned against the Holy Spirit, and worry that they might be excluded from forgiveness and eternal salvation. The good news is that if you’ve ever agonized over such thoughts or fears, you’ve the certain assurance that the Holy Spirit is alive in you, and that you have a repentant heart. No one who’s actually committed this sin, and blasphemed the Holy Spirit, would be overcome with remorse or doubt. The fact that you earnestly desire to be included in Christ’s redemption, and are sorry for whatever rebellion or words you might’ve said, is proof that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within you, and you are a believer. The sin against the Holy Spirit is not simply the sin of unbelief or of unrepentance. Nor is it rejecting God through foolishness or spiritual blindness, both of which one can recover from. What many faithful pastors and theologians have said through the ages, is that what makes the sin unforgivable, is precisely the fact that the person who commits the sin against the Holy Spirit never wants forgiveness! They not only refuse to repent, but also permanently reject the work of the Holy Spirit. But if you are seeking forgiveness, the Spirit lives in you, and you are forgiven.
            But the first part of Jesus’ statement should not be passed over lightly because of the great weight of these words. For Jesus also shows the incredible extent of God’s forgiveness, that not the number of our sins, or the kind of our sins, or even the severity of our sins prevents us from receiving God’s forgiveness. This of course is not an encouragement or incentive for us to sin more, but rather a testament to the greatness of God’s love. For all whom the Holy Spirit brings to repentance, and sorrow over their sins, Jesus Christ is faithful and just to cleanse from all unrighteousness.
            There are many sins that we in our own hearts might think would be unforgivable. Things we might count as atrocities, or acts from which we think no human could ever turn back toward God. But one only need look at the disgraceful sins of many of the great saints in the Bible, great and terrible errors that they turned from, and how they became once again useful vessels in God’s service. God took lumps of clay, or a block of wood, and shaped a useful tool for His service. Jesus is the Master of the turn-around. Of the rescued sinner. Of the Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me (and of the hymn author John Newton, who was converted to Christianity after leaving behind a horrible life of kidnapping Africans and selling them in the slave trade). Jesus’ forgiveness can rescue even those for whom we’ve abandoned all hope.
            And that’s part of the beauty of one of the verses at the center of this reading from Mark. As Jesus’ clinching point about why He wasn’t in league with the devil, He said: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder His goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed He may plunder his house.” The devil is the strong man who guards his house and his possessions. The demon-possessed people that Jesus cured, were evidence of just how strongly the devil held them in his grip. But the barn-crashing news is that Jesus is the stronger man who breaks into the devil’s stronghold, binds him up so he is helpless, and plunders his goods! Jesus is the One who lays waste the devil’s house and kingdom, and breaks sinners out of their chains! As Jesus says in the parallel in Luke 11:22, “when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Isn’t that a marvelous picture of Jesus winning salvation? That the devil, big brute that he is, intimidator and jailer of many who are under his power, is attacked and overcome by Jesus Christ, the STRONGER ONE, who ties him up, disarms him, and the winner takes the spoils!
            The reason we never should edit, flatten out, soften or otherwise tamper with who Jesus is, is because we need every bit of this bold, untamable, strong and mighty Savior, who is powerful to deliver us from our sins and from the power of the evil one. We need the God, who barn-storms the devil’s house and makes a ruckus of all the evil plots the devil has at work. The One who upsets hypocrisy hidden under a thin veneer of religion. The One who makes the demons run and hide. The One who did a full-on cleaning of the Temple to turn out the cheaters and thieves and bring in the sinners seeking God in prayer. The One who is the Light of Truth that exposes all the deceptions, the slaveries, the lies. The One who speaks a gentle word of forgiveness to the ones whom everyone has condemned. The One who blesses children and sternly warns those who would lead them astray. The One who even forgave the blasphemies that were uttered at Him as He hung on the cross. This is the Jesus I respect and adore in worship, the Jesus whose Spirit convicts me of sin, and fills me with faith to believe. The Jesus who died on the cross to bait the devil into his final and colossal defeat, and who rose again from the dead with His heel firmly planted on the crushed head of the serpent. This Jesus is my King and my Lord, the One who saved me from my foolishness and sin, and is still working to make you and I useful vessels for His service. Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What makes passages like Mark 3 and others about Jesus hard for some to accept? Why is it a dangerous error to try to do our own “editing” of the Bible to get what we like out of it, instead of hearing what it’s saying to us? Rom. 9:20-21; Isaiah 29:16; 45:9. What might we miss out on, if we reduce or reshape the image of Jesus?
  2. How did Jesus’ family struggle to accept who He was? John 7:5; Mark 3:21, 33. What bond did Jesus count as even closer than that of family (flesh & blood)? Read Mark 3:33-35.
  3. How was the blasphemy of the scribes against Jesus, just one more incident in an escalating series of confrontations? See Mark 2:16, 24; 3:1-6: 7:1-13; 8:11-12; 10:18; 11:27-33; 14:53-65.
  4. Beelzebub or Beelzebul, was a Philistine idol. 2 Kings 1:1-16. How was the scribes’ denunciation of Jesus’ work intended? How did Jesus show the illogic of their accusation? What was the upshot of the fact that Jesus wasn’t in league with the devil? How should they have reacted to this truth? Luke 11:20, 23
  5. What is the unforgivable sin, or the sin against the Holy Spirit? What difference does Jesus indicate between blasphemy against the Son, and against the Holy Spirit? Matt. 12:31-32; Luke 12:10. What was so malicious about their assault on the Spirit’s work, in Mark 3:22?
  6. What indication can be pointed to as evidence that a person has not committed the unforgivable sin?
  7. How is Jesus’ incredible offer of forgiveness for all other sins, equally amazing? How does Jesus forgive sins and deliver us from the kingdom of the devil? Luke 11:22. How is Jesus’ death on the cross the devil’s complete undoing? Gen. 3:15; John 19:30; Col. 2:13-15

Monday, June 04, 2012

Sermon on Acts 2:22-36, Holy Trinity Sunday, "The God of Action"

Sermon Outline:
1.      How often do we really live according to the popular phrase, “It’s not about you; it’s about God/Jesus?” Our needs, desires, goals first—what’s in it for me? Not God and His Word first. Prayer is a good test of this: are we praying for “my will be done” or “Thy will be done?” Are we praying for God to change someone else, or do something that serves our needs, or praying for God to change us, for us to serve someone else?
2.      A day like today, Trinity Sunday, and a text like our reading from Acts 2 are good ones for us. Like so many others, we’re just in the back seat, observing what God is doing. Good step back to see that it’s all about God, and Jesus. “God in Action”—God doing all the verbs, all the action in the reading. God doing stuff with, for, and through Jesus.
3.      Just to review: God publicly attested to Jesus v. 22, God did the signs and miracles through Him v. 22, God appointed Him, had foreknowledge of Him v.23, God raised Him, loosing the bonds of death v.24, God made known to Him the paths of life v. 28, God filled Him with gladness v. 28, God swore an oath to David v. 30, God raised Jesus from the dead v. 32, God exalted Jesus to His right hand v. 33, Jesus received the Holy Spirit from God v. 33, God speaks to His Son, seating Him at His right hand of authority, and subordinates all enemies beneath Him. v. 34-5, God made Him both Lord and Christ. All about what God is doing for us. Preparing and carrying out salvation.
4.      God’s actions public—seen by many witnesses, inescapable truth. Jesus given all the “calling cards,” “credentials,” “identity markers” to show Him as the Messiah. Public attestation. Many prophecies He had to fulfill: born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, proclaim peace and good news to the poor, make the blind to see and the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. His death had to involve the piercing of His hands, feet and side, not one of His bones could be broken in death, He could not be abandoned to the grave, as quoted from Ps. 16 in today’s reading, and His body could not be corrupted or decomposed. And He must rise from the dead! These and many other prophecies were marvelously fulfilled by Jesus. God’s public attestation for the people, that Jesus was truly sent by God.
5.      The hidden part of the plan, the part that was not seen by everyone, but was mysterious, was how He was going to work life and salvation through Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion at the hands of wicked men, and resurrection. But all known and planned from long before time. God’s infinite wisdom. But the best part is God breaking the bonds of death. Literally the “birth pains” because death is giving way to life in Jesus’ resurrection—a new birth for the old creation. Death had real trouble with Jesus. It couldn’t hold Him down, couldn’t beat Him back, couldn’t chain Him down to the grave.
6.      The sorrows, the pangs of death were great for Christ, He suffered an awful ordeal, but see how God took action in raising Jesus from death. It was more than just a simple wakeup call--David and Peter wrote that in His raising of Jesus He made known to Him the paths of life, filled Him with gladness from His presence, and loosed the pains of death. God took away the grief, the sorrow, the great misery of that awful death, and filled Him with such a gladness and knowledge of Life to fill His heart and tongue with gladness. Life, joy, gladness, hope were all restored. Heart and flesh were glad and dwelt in hope.
7.      Where are we in this reading? What do we do? It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus for us. We are the observers; see and hear all this take place, in awe of God’s majesty and power
8.      We are those who rejoice to see the One who brings great trouble to death. The One whom death can’t hold, even with its miserable chains of fury, agony, grief. And so we’re promised that even death’s worst won’t do us in, that our heart will once again be filled with gladness, and our flesh dwell in the hope of God. We’re filled with gladness to watch God’s Messiah, His chosen Deliverer, walk out of the tomb promising life to all who simply believe in Him. One day we’re going to give death “trouble” too, because of the One who died and rose for us—the grave won’t be able to hold us in on the Day our Messiah, our Savior Jesus appears.
9.      We’re the subjects of the King, the ones who look up to the right hand of God the Father, and worship Jesus in reverence and awe.
10.  We’re the ones who receive His Holy Spirit to dwell in us, as a holy temple; who receive the Triune God’s name in Water and the Word: “You are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” God places His mark of ownership on you. The seal of His name, marking you as redeemed (bought back) by Christ the crucified.
11.  This passage, like so many others, puts us in the “back seat” where we belong, watching God at work, instead of trying to be “back seat drivers.” God is in control, He moves the great events of time, sometimes clearly, sometimes in a hidden and mysterious way. But His plan is behind it all. God is in action—Father, Son, Holy Spirit, working out His salvation for you. He accomplishes it by His mighty power in the sight of all, and gives it freely to all who believe as the Words and promises of God declare. Amen.    

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Note on the Athanasian Creed: The end of the creed makes reference to all people rising and giving an account concerning their deeds, and that those who’ve done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Examine these Scripture passages that refer to the judgment: Matt. 12:35-37; 25:31-46; John 5:21-29, esp. vs. 24, 29 & John 6:28-29; cf. Rom. 8:1. While works are examined in the final judgment, those who have faith are spared judgment and condemnation on account of Jesus’ righteous life.
  2. In Acts 2:22-36, Peter quotes two Psalms of David, Psalm 16 & 110, that prove Jesus was God’s designated Messiah (Christ, “Anointed One”) and that God had exalted Him to the highest place. Read both Psalms in their entirety. How does Peter argue that Ps. 16 could not refer to David, but must instead refer to Jesus?
  3. Read through Acts 2:22-36 and pay attention to the verbs, the “action words.” What are the actions that God Himself performs in these verses? How is salvation ultimately the work of our Triune God, and not our own works? How is God the “God of action?” What actions of God are commonly associated with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  4. In v. 22, Peter talks about how God has publicly attested to Jesus as His chosen Messiah. He uses the language of a public certification for office. What marked Jesus as the Messiah? What were His “credentials”? Isaiah 61:1-3; Is. 53; Micah 5:2, etc.
  5. How was God’s definite plan, though hidden from mankind at first, at work in Jesus’ death and resurrection? John 10:17-18; Matt. 16:21. How is this resurrection hope decreed for all who believe in Jesus? John 11:25-26. 

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost, "Call on the Lord!"

            “Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen” The day of Pentecost has arrived, the name meaning fiftieth, as it has been 50 days since Jesus’ resurrection from the dead! Also 10 days since His ascension into heaven. On this 50th day, our church seasons shift from Easter into Pentecost, the season of the Holy Spirit and the growth He works through Christ’s church. On this 50th day, as you heard in our readings, the disciples gathered in the upper room, were “baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire” as Jesus promised, as tongues of flame appeared over their heads and they began to speak in other languages. Pentecost was already a festival day long before the New Testament, way back into the time of Moses, a harvest festival. But this first Christian Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection took on new significance as the disciples launched the Good News of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, out into the world in an unprecedented way.
            As with the two other biggest religious holidays in Jerusalem, there were huge crowds of pilgrims—religious travelers come to the Temple to worship God and make offerings. And so the harvest festival made a fitting opportunity for a great “spiritual harvest” that was going to take place. But these pilgrims came speaking many different languages—most were Jews, yes—but had long been scattered to new homelands in distant countries. 12 apostles of Jesus, with their task in hand—give witness to Jesus starting in Jerusalem, and working outward in expanding circles like the ripples in a pond, to the very ends of the earth. A monumental task to kick off, to say the least, and here faced with a diverse and multi-lingual crowd. Those 12 apostles, all Galileans—they might possibly know 2 or 4 languages among them?
            It may have seemed a new turn on the feeding of the 5,000 with only two loaves and five fish. How could they meet the need? The obstacle? But just like then, God provided—He multiplied what was there, and suddenly the disciples were speaking flawlessly in languages from at least 15 regions around the Mediterranean! People were astonished that suddenly they heard the mighty wonders of God being proclaimed in their own language. They heard and understood in their heart language, what God had done in Christ Jesus. The language barrier was instantly and miraculously bridged so that no time would be lost, no delay would occur before these pilgrims could hear, cherish, and believe the good news in their own language.
            God’s mission advanced under its own force and timing, not according to the timing of men or the strategy of the apostles, or through their own powers. Rather, when God poured out His Holy Spirit, the gates were open and the mission of the church—God’s mission to the world—was gloriously begun. And once it began it has never stopped. The mission of God is still moving and advancing and embracing the globe, as missionaries, witnesses, men and women and children, disciples and pastors and all who bear the name of Christ carry on that beautiful task of telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.
            Ours is an “audio gospel”—its meant to be spoken and its meant to be heard. Heard around the world in English, which wasn’t even spoken at the time of Pentecost! Heard in Japanese, Hindustani, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, Spanish, and Sign language! It’s our joy to tell about what God has done in breaking the power of sin and death through Jesus Christ, and giving us the ultimate freedom and hope of forgiveness and eternal life. And wherever this good news of Jesus’ mighty deeds—His death and resurrection—is spoken and heard, there the Holy Spirit is active and working, just as on the day of Pentecost. Seeds of the Gospel are sown far and wide, and they will bear fruit in God’s timing.
            And there are challenges to the mission today just as there were then. There are hearts that are closed by unbelief, there are those who believe death is the ultimate and final end, there are hearts that have been seared by unimaginable grief or loss, and have despaired of any hope for repair. There are obstacles from people who “know” more about Jesus from pop-fiction and pseudo-documentaries about Christianity, than truly knowing Him from a real encounter with Jesus in His Gospels. But like the first Christians, God provides for and equips us as He needs for every challenge and obstacle, and He sees to it that His mission continues to go forward. His Word can penetrate even the most stubborn heart and bring peace to those who have despaired of any help or forgiveness. You are here today, to hear and learn His Word and receive His Sacrament for your ongoing feeding and nourishment for that task.
            Peter’s message as he quoted from the Old Testament prophet Joel to show how this was all being fulfilled just as God foretold, ended with these crucial words: “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The kingdom of God rippled outward from Jerusalem, with the message of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, of His winning eternal life for all who believe in him. And as it did, many hearts believed it, and some did not. But all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. You Christians here, have and continue to call on Jesus’ name for your salvation. In a few minutes, several of our youth are also going to publicly call on the name of the Lord Jesus as well. Our confirmands have prepared through two years of study, to come and confess the faith into which they were baptized. They come to confess the same faith that Peter and the apostles preached at Pentecost. The same Christian faith that has rippled around the world and created generation after generation of believers in the Lord Jesus for 20 centuries. They are prepared to call it their own, to say that they have studied and learned, and they also affirm that this is the faith they believe, the faith in which they are growing and learning just as you and I continue to grow and learn.
            They have learned what it means to confess their faith. To confess means to “same-say” or say the same truth that God has spoken to us. So as we confess our sins, we acknowledge before God what He has told us is true, that we are all sinful, and have fallen short of His glory. So as we confess our faith in the words of the creed, we acknowledge before God that He has truly revealed Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that through the birth, life, trial, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has won for us forgiveness of all sin and eternal life. To confess is to speak God’s true words with our own mouths. It’s to acknowledge His great deeds as true also of you, as you call on His name. Romans 10 ties this confession of our faith together with calling on the name of the Lord:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The faith of our hearts in Jesus Christ, necessarily gives rise to our confession of Him with our mouth. And this confession of Jesus Christ as Lord will not put us to shame, Scripture says.
            God is unfailing in His promises, and we should never delay or hesitate to call on His name. Yet as I mentioned in my sermon on Pentecost last year, so often we neglect to call on God. Like a person who needs a repair done at home, and has a business card for the repairman, but never calls. Does it do them any good to have the card but not use it? Don’t fail to use God’s name—don’t “hang on” to the name but never use it—call on Him daily in prayer. Call on Him in the day of trouble, and He will answer.
            Adults, you also look back to remember when you were confirmed as a youth, or when you publicly affirmed your faith. Remember the words “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death.” And the response: “I do, by the grace of God.” How with that vow and similar ones you pledged to suffer all, even death, rather than forsake Christ and His church. Take those words seriously, knowing that there is truly nothing that compares to the treasure of having Christ and being part of His body, the church. Saving our life, our skin, while surrendering Him, would be to hang on to the life with an expiration date, while giving up the life that is imperishable! A thousand things could take our lives, or none of them at all. Sickness, accidents, heart attacks, murder, natural disaster. But none of these, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
            That God’s love is so certain, so profound, so unshakeable, is every reason for you to call on His name and be saved. That His love is a love that reached all the way from heaven and came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is every reason for His gospel to continue to advance and spread around the world, into all the deepest jungles and remotest habitations, and into all our neighborhoods and into every family and every heart of those around us. His mission will continue until it is fulfilled, so that all who call on His name will be saved—and by His powerful Spirit and in His timing He will bring it about! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Pentecost, the “Feast of Weeks” or “Festival of Harvest” is actually an Old Testament celebration. Ex. 34:22; Deut 16:10; Num 28:26; Ex. 23:16a. Pilgrims would gather in Jerusalem, and on Pentecost morning, a flute player would lead the farmers up Mount Zion as they sang the “Song of Ascents” (Psalm 120-36). When they reached the temple, the farmers would present a basket of grain as an offering while reciting the words from Deuteronomy 26:5-10a in Hebrew. (The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1835).
2.      How did this day of Pentecost present a significant opportunity for “harvest” for the apostles and early Christians? What significant obstacle needed to be overcome? (cf. Gen. 11:1-9). How did God provide?
3.      How has the advance of the kingdom of God proceeded around the world, and into many languages? Why is it so precious for people to hear the “mighty works of God” in their own heart language? Why is it important for us to tell the mighty works of God in our own language?
4.      Describe what it means to confess. Romans 10:9-10. Why does Jesus call for our public confession of Him before others? Matt. 10:32-33
5.      The Holy Bible says that “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How do we make use of this promise? Can we bank on this promise? Absolutely! But how easy is it to neglect? Rom. 10:9-13.