Monday, April 22, 2013

Sermon on Acts 20:17-35, for the 4th Sunday of Easter, "Pastor and Flock"

Sermon Outline:
·         Congregation doesn’t often get to hear what the responsibilities of the pastor are toward the congregation—usually just performed and assumed. Occasions when it’s made explicit, like an ordination or installation of a pastor, are rare, and not always attended by the entire congregation. Acts 20, Paul gives a “farewell address” to the elders of the church of Ephesus. Elders (“presbuterous”—the term was not used in the NT to describe lay people, but the pastors of the church, also called “episcopous”—bishops or overseers, and given the task of “shepherding”—no rankings in these terms). As a congregation of God, what have you the right to expect of us as pastors? Doesn’t lay out the complete task, but what does it tell?
·         First and foremost: to preach and teach the whole counsel of God, not adding or subtracting. The temptation of every preacher is to add their own ideas to the Bible, or to subtract those things (typically) that are hardest to teach or unpopular. The pastor is responsible to see that he does not do this, but teaches the whole counsel of God. But the congregation, the hearers, also share in that responsibility as well, to know God’s Word to make sure the pastor is accountable to the Bible.
·         I regularly urge you to this prayerful study and examination of both my teaching and God’s Word, and I hope that you take this as serious as I do—for I am a sinner too, and err, but in the teaching of God’s Word there is no room for error. Error in the teaching of God’s Word must be corrected. As Paul says later in his address, after he leaves, there’ll be fierce wolves that come from outside, and also false men that will spring up from inside—among them, speaking twisted things. He’s talking about false teachers, from inside and outside the church, twisting the word of God. Distorting it. And because this error and misuse of God’s Word leads disciples astray, it is spiritually deadly. He’s comparing it to letting wolves loose inside the sheepfold, to devour the lambs. That’s what false teaching does. It harms souls.
·         Paul recounts no easy road as he taught them faithfully in God’s Word, saying that many times his admonishments, or corrections, were filled with tears. Confident that he had now set them on the firm foundation of God’s Word by teaching them the whole counsel of God—even knowing that these false teachers will come, he says: “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace.” These men, pastors in Ephesus, had been like apprentices or disciples to Paul, and he did not fear that they would fail when he left, as though he had ever been the reason for the church’s existence. Rather he entrusted them to God and the Word of His grace. God is always the One—not us—who preserves and prospers His church, and it is by the Word of His grace that pastors pass on the ministry from one to the next. God’s Word is the strongest weapon against the false teachers, and the same is true today. It is a weapon wielded for good and not for evil, and the weapon of God’s Word is the Truth.
·         When Paul confronted false teachers in Corinth, he said that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). The Word of God, as Truth, has this power to destroy the strongholds of human pride and lofty opinions, to assail the ivory towers of men’s learning and bring our own thoughts into obedience to Christ. The Truth has the power to expose the Lie, and that’s what the devil fears most, and why he attacks the Word from countless angles, to undermine the foundation of our faith.
·         Like Paul, a pastor teaches both in public, but also from house to house. Pastoral visits to individual members and families remains an important part of our ministry as pastors here at Emmanuel. Unfortunately, some people fear a visit from the pastor means that they are “in trouble”—but rather, home visits from the pastor help us to better know you and your spiritual needs. To pray for concerns you might not otherwise have the opportunity to share. To instruct from God’s Word on questions that you may have. To offer guidance from God’s Word on a challenge in life. To offer support in time of illness, grief, or loss. And, when necessary, provide admonishment or correction from God’s Word, speaking the truth in love. All these and a variety of other concerns a pastor is able to address in home visitation. Though we’ve both had opportunities to visit with many of you, there are still many more whom we’ve never visited with. Members should always feel open to ask the pastor to visit with them, whether or not they have a concern on their heart, or just simply want to pray and listen to God’s Word—which are central to every visit. We both want to encourage our members not to hesitate to call on your pastors, and we will be happy to visit you.
·         Paul warned the pastors of Ephesus about false teachers as he left. He also gave them commands of what to do, and God’s promises for them in the carrying out of those commands. The first command is that they “pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock.” Interesting that he says pay attention to themselves first. To be receiving God’s Word for ourselves also, not only giving it out to others. That the pastor is fed by God’s Word and has his own life of prayer and study, so that he is able to feed others. And further, to see that his life is consistent with his words.
·         A pastor is not to use his office for greed or gain, or be filled with pride or power. Rather, like Paul, to show humility in service, patience and determination to cling to God’s Word even through trials and opposition, compassion and love for the flock, and hard work with his hands to set an example that we must help and care for the weak. This is a solemn calling, and certainly makes me mindful of all my shortcomings and failures, and I believe that the Ephesian pastors would have felt the same inadequacy for the task, when he gave them their marching orders. But as God is always faithful, He gives us His great and blessed promises. Paul reminds them that they have their calling from God and that the Holy Spirit made them under-shepherds of God’s church, which He obtained with His own blood.
·         Did you catch the glory and the power of that promise? Whose blood is it? Whose blood purchased the church of God? God’s own blood! What a brilliant statement of Jesus’ own divinity—that He is true God, who shed God’s blood on the cross to redeem the church. God, in Christ Jesus, bled on the cross for our sins! So that He could gather us together as the sheep of His fold. And what else but the blood of God could be of such priceless worth as to pay the cost for all of our sins, to win a whole kingdom for Himself? Nothing but the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
·         And after his repeated command to be watchful and remember what he taught, he gives a second promise for the church. That we are commended “to God and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” We are reminded that the church prevails through time and history, not because of its own merits, or the merits of its pastors, or members, but rather the church prevails because of Christ’s own Word and promise. The church—the people of God gathered around Christ and His Word—is God’s own. As Jesus promised, the gates of hell will never prevail over it, because its built on this Rock: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. God’s Son who bled and died to obtain the church as His own. And God’s Word is a powerful Word—the Word that builds. The Word that builds up the saints into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood of believers who serve the Lord. And as the church is built and grows as the body of Christ, it is built up in love, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians.
·         And this Word of God’s grace holds an inheritance in store for all believers. The inheritance of the kingdom of God. The inheritance that is sealed for us by the guarantee or down payment of the Holy Spirit, alive and at work in us. The Holy Spirit who makes us holy, leading us in lives of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, the commands and promises of Jesus give pastors their commission to serve His church, and on these promises of God’s continued grace and provision, the church itself depends. Jesus is the One True Shepherd of the church, and it is by His will that the flock grows, pastures safely, and lives. Amen.

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

1.      What instructions does Acts 20:17-35 contain for pastors? What worthy example did St. Paul set in his own conduct of his ministry among the Ephesians? The New Testament uses a variety of descriptive terms for the one preaching office, without any sense of hierarchy or rank in power: Presbyters (elders); shepherds (pastor); bishop (overseer); evangelist; teacher; apostles; prophets; etc.
2.      Read Acts 20:26-27. What does it mean to declare the “whole counsel of God?” What is the danger of false teaching, and why is it vital that sound teaching be maintained? 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 6:3-10; 2 Timothy 3:12-17.
3.      What gave Paul the confidence that his work in the church didn’t ultimately depend on him, and that the church would “survive” without him, under the ministry of other pastors? What “weapon” did they have against false teaching? 2 Corinthians 10:4-5; Ephesians 6:10-20. 
4.      What are some of the reasons a pastor might teach or visit from house to house? Do you have a need, or would you be open to a visit from your pastor(s)?
5.      Whose blood was the purchase price of the church? Acts 20:28. What does that say about the identity of Jesus? How does that supply the forgiveness and salvation by which the church lives?

**Note: although the exact wording of the quotation of Jesus in Acts 20:35 is found nowhere in the Gospels, the theme is expressed in many places: Matthew 10:8; Luke 6:38; 11:9-13; John 13:34. Why is there greater blessing in giving than receiving?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sermon on John 21_1-14, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, "The Lord's Catch"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. We’re never really told why Peter and the six other disciples decided to go out fishing that night, sometime after Jesus’ first two resurrection appearances to them, and before they received the special outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost. But the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias) was an old, familiar place, filled with memories of their lives as fishermen, and then, when Jesus came teaching and calling, their lives as disciples. Were Peter and the disciples restless—searching for guidance on what to do now, after the stunning events of Easter, and seeing Jesus risen from the dead? Were they retreating from the task that Jesus had set before them, to go and proclaim repentance and forgiveness in His name to all nations? Uncertain? Retreating into a familiar, comfortable routine? We certainly know the reasons why we do that sort of thing. Or were they simply passing the time until the gift of the Holy Spirit would come, and they could begin their work?
Whatever it was, the Sea of Galilee and that old fishing boat must have been a peaceful place to sit and ponder quietly, or perhaps talk about what the resurrection of Jesus meant for their lives now. The gentle rocking of the boat and the soft lapping of the waves near the shores where Jesus had taught and performed so many miracles. The starry sky above, and the hidden fish below the waters. No luck there. Wasn’t the first time they’d fished all night and the nets came up empty. As dawn broke, an unknown figure on the shore called out to them, asking if they’d caught anything. Hearing their “no” He urges them to cast the nets on the right side of the boat, and they will catch some fish. With nothing to lose, they obey, and suddenly all this starts to seem remarkably familiar, as they catch such a haul of fish that they can’t lift it into the boat! “It is the Lord!” With flashes of déjà vu, Jesus gives Himself away with a “trademark” or “signature action.” In an instant, they must have remembered the day when Jesus came out in their fishing boat, a carpenter with a lesson to teach some seasoned old fishermen.
Some three years had passed since that day, when Jesus entered the boat after a long night of fruitless fishing, and against all fisherman’s wisdom, took them in the daylight out to the deep water to make one last attempt to let down their nets. That first time, with breaking nets and nearly sinking boats, they were brought to their knees in fear and amazement at Jesus. Peter had said in fear, “Away from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And Jesus had replied not to be afraid, for He was going to make them “fishers of men.” So much had changed in those three years. Peter was no longer fearful of Jesus’ approach, like a child caught in deep trouble, afraid to approach their parent—but now he jumps out of the boat and can’t wait even those last 100 yards to get to shore! And dripping wet, like a fisherman out of water, Peter is now so ever-glad to be in Jesus’ net. Perhaps with the unresolved twinges of guilt from denying Jesus still lurking below the surface, Peter nevertheless rushes to Jesus, eager to be in his Lord’s presence, and to receive the Lord’s direction. And if later on, you read the full chapter of John 21, you’ll see the beautiful beachside reconciliation that Jesus gave Peter—restoring him threefold as apostle.
But for now it is enough to be with the risen Lord again, and the other disciples have arrived. And again, the Lord, now the glorified and Risen Lord Jesus, is in the position of servant—cooking them breakfast, ready to serve His tired disciples a hot breakfast. And bring some of what you’ve caught. “Come and have breakfast.” You can tell the disciples are still having trouble sorting this all out. Even though Jesus was plainly before them, they dared not ask Him, “who are you?” But notice their uncertainty and confusion wasn’t external—there was no denying Jesus was there with them, but their lingering doubt was internal—inside them. Even now, at this third appearance of Jesus, it all seemed so miraculous and incredible, that they were still coming to grips with Jesus’ resurrection. There was nothing they could question about the fact that this same Jesus had died on the cross for them, but was now alive. But like all of us, their hearts were slow in accepting the promise and grasping the joy of the resurrection.
Even today, for many who doubt or don’t believe, it’s not that they’ve so thoroughly studied God’s Word, and the evidence for the resurrection, or for God’s existence, that they just can’t believe. Instead, the doubt and uncertainty lies inside. This is why as Lutherans, we’re always eager to urge Christians and everyone, in fact, to find the certainty of faith and of God, not inside ourselves, in a mystical hidden feeling that might come and go with our most recent meal, but in the grounded and external Word of God, and the person of Jesus Christ. Like the disciples accepted what was certain and real before their eyes, before trusting their misgivings and doubts. Faith finds certainty, not inside us—we who’re filled with so much sin and uncertainty—but faith finds its certainty outside us, in Jesus Christ and His Word.
But what did this remarkable fishing trip that capped off their life of “old, familiar ways” teach them, or how did it provide them guidance for the “ventures bold and new” to which Jesus had called them? Jesus’ time with them was growing short—soon they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Soon they would set out, some also in boats, across greater seas, to become “fishers of men” from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Years from now, Peter would die for the gospel, probably in Rome, across the Great Sea. What did this catch of 153 fish mean for them? No number games, I promise! It taught them that this was “The Lord’s Catch.” It was His command and guidance that brought that load of fish into their net. He had supplied the fish, even as called it what “you have just caught.” It wasn’t their long night of laboring by their efforts, or fishermen’s expertise that brought in those fish. The Lord had prepared and planned it for them. He was the One to equip and send them as fishers of men.
What did that mean for His Great Commission that they go out to all the world, making disciples by baptizing and teaching? It meant that even as fishers of men, this would still and always be “The Lord’s Catch.” By Jesus’ command and guidance, by His supply, He will provide “the catch.” As Christians who eagerly want to share the good news of Jesus with others, we sometimes grow discouraged, that after long nights of fishing by our own efforts, casting our nets here and there, we come up empty. We look at empty chairs or pews with discouragement, wondering where’s the catch, tempted to search for some secret bait, some special solution. But we must always be reminded, that just as for the disciples, so also for us, it will always be the Lord’s Catch. Not as an excuse to get lazy or fall asleep in the boat, or to give up casting the nets, but to remind us that God supplies the catch where and when He wills.
Scripture is full of these reminders, that the growth of the kingdom of God depends on God, not us. John 6:44, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” In every case, God draws people to faith in Him. In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes how God in Christ uses us to spread the fragrance of knowledge of Him everywhere, and how we’re not sufficient to claim anything comes from us, but that our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 2:14-3:6). In 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, Paul tells that he planted and Apollos (another missionary) watered, but God gave the growth, and that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
So what matters, is that we don’t take credit for anything, or think that our own efforts can bring success apart from what Christ has given and blessed. Because Christ will give and supply the catch, and all credit and glory belongs to Him. What matters is that we go faithfully into the mission field with Christ’s unchanging Word and bring the Good News to all. And that mission field is all around us, everywhere that the seed has not yet been sown, along all the ways “where hope has nearly died”—within the lives of those around us, be they family, friends, neighbors or strangers, who are hurting and lost for the want of the forgiveness, hope and life that we have in Jesus Christ. And that He equips us with His Spirit for this task.
Because like sinners who are hesitant to approach the Lord Jesus, like Peter who underwent the transformation from being a simple fisherman, terrified of Jesus’ power, to leaping into the water fully clothed, to swim ashore and be in Jesus’ presence—we too can run to Jesus and find His open and forgiving arms, receiving all who come to Him. We can come to Jesus and confess our sins, cast down the sin and unresolved guilt, the lurking uncertainties, we can take to Him our fear and our failure, and find His restoration and forgiveness. And we find in Him The Servant’s Love, the Love of Him who came not to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many. We find in Him the forgiving love that restores Peter, restores sinners like us, that places us gladly in His service. We find the One who catches us up in His great gospel net, and binds us in heart and will to Him.
While we cannot meet Him for breakfast, we can still come into His presence and dine at His table. We can rush to His church, where we find forgiveness, grace and mercy. We can come to the place where He has promised He will be—in His very Word, spoken to us that we might believe and have life. That we may come to the waters of Baptism, that He has made holy, and where He gives us His name to join us to His death and resurrection. He calls us to His table, where His sacrificed and risen body and blood are given for the forgiveness of our sins. Yes, we can come to Jesus, where He has promised to be present for us, for our life and for the forgiveness of sins. We don’t have to remain aimless, uncertain, fearful, restless, anxious or discouraged. We don’t have to live bound by fear and timidity, or searching inside us for vague and elusive inner guidance—we can live boldly in the confidence that Christ has won a new life over sin and death for us. We can live with the knowledge that just as we are His disciples, His catch, so also our work in discipling others will always be “The Lord’s Catch.” We can find in His living scriptures the very life and peace He brings for us. Yes, we can live in the presence of our Lord, who has surely promised us, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen!

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

1.      What reasons might the disciples have had for going back to an old, familiar activity?
2.      As the episode unfolds, what “trademark” or “signature action” gave Jesus away, before they first recognized Him and came ashore? Luke 5:1-11. What commission had He given them on that day when He first called them to be His disciples?
3.      How would this sort of déjà vu episode give them encouragement as they were preparing to set out on the Great Commission Jesus prepared them for? (cf. Matthew 28:16-20. Did the Great Commission happen close to this fishing scene in Galilee??)
4.      How does the call of discipleship and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, call us to “forsake old, familiar ways for ventures bold and new” and “send us on ways where faith transcends timidity”? (LSB 856 “O Christ, Who Called the Twelve”) How can we venture boldly for Christ?
5.      How does the fact that the great haul of fish was “The Lord’s Catch”—not theirs, assure us that the Lord will also provide the “catch” when we go out as “fishers of men?” Matthew 13:47-50; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 3:5; John 6:44; 1 Corinthians 3:5-9
6.      Read the first lesson for today, Acts 9:1-22. How was Saul (later Paul), an unexpected “big catch” in God’s fishing net? How did Ananias first react? What would Paul become? Acts 9:15-16. How does this again illustrate God’s power?
7.      How, like Peter, should we have the same exuberance and eagerness to seek out the presence of Jesus? And where has He promised His presence among us? Matthew 28:20; 26:26-29

Monday, April 08, 2013

Sermon on John 20:19-31, for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Doubt or Faith?"

Sermon Outline:
·         Who was Thomas? (larger question Thomas had answered: Who is the Christ, the Messiah of promise?). Thomas and Lazarus (John 11). “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14). Loyalty, brotherhood, certainty, skepticism, avoid deception, proof, conviction. Eyewitness. Where was the flaw in his thinking? That he doubted Jesus’ word? Needed proof?
·         Jesus met Thomas’ challenge, as though He’d been eavesdropping. Thomas’ reaction. Jesus’ response. Thomas’ role in the resurrection accounts—not just a fantastical tale, nor a wispy hope based on rumors. Thomas’ encounter passed this skeptic’s tests, proved the Jesus’ resurrection in the body was real. Important “test” to pass, because the future faith of those who would never get to see, but still would believe, is not based on flights into absurdity or “magical thinking.” Rather: the very Word of God made flesh, God in human person, the One who opened Thomas’ eyes at last, “My Lord and my God!” The future faith of every Christian, from the time of Jesus’ ascension till now—is based on concrete and historical events at a particular time and place, involving particular people and eyewitnesses, and involving the man Jesus who was wounded and crucified in a very particular manner—which left tell-tale identifying marks, that Thomas and the others got to see for themselves.
·         Things we can know without seeing? Touching? Science: atoms, molecules, unseen planets & black holes. May not have expertise to copy their experiments, take their word (within reason). Cartographers and geography—historians and famous people and events—believe even though we can’t always verify for ourselves. Impossible to live with uncompromising skepticism that can’t believe unless proven ourselves. If we consistently applied the principle that “I won’t believe it unless I see it”—massive categories of information and knowledge we’d have to suspend our belief. Almost nothing for certain. And with the age of neuroscience and virtual reality, one could even fall into a paranoia of not being sure of your own senses--whether or not they had been manipulated.
·         So never question authority? Strain belief to the point of gullibility? NO!! Thankfully Scripture doesn’t leave us facing such desperate extremes. Not a choice between foolish gullibility and hardened skepticism. Faith is not blind leaps into absurdities. And scripture actually teaches a healthy sort of skepticism and sober-mindedness that questions false teachings, examines things, and is watchful for deception.
·         But we’re called to have faith—which Hebrews 11:1 defines as “being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” Faith recognizes some things are true, that can’t be seen or proved by the senses. It recognizes that there’s more to existence than just the material world. But neither does it invite us into illusions. The faith that Thomas was called to have, when Jesus said, “Do not disbelieve, but believe!” was not pie-in-the-sky faith—that’s not faith at all. Nothing could be further from the heart of Christian faith than wishful thinking. Rather, the faith Thomas was called to have was in the Word of God made flesh—Jesus Christ. Not a phantom or a ghost, but a living man with scars in His hands and side and feet, from His recent death. The man who invited him to touch and see that He was real.
·         Thomas’ sudden confession: “My Lord and my God!” Because who else is the One who defeats death?! No stranger, one he’d never known; but the close companion and teacher that he had followed until death. And now his Lord and God! All the power Thomas had seen in Jesus in all His miracles before—healing the sick, the lame, the blind—even raising dead Lazarus—Thomas’ dear friend—all paled in comparison to what he now saw before his eyes. Any doubts he had, any hesitation about who Jesus really was, evaporated. He really is the Messiah, the Son of God. Death has no hold on Jesus.
·         Such joy, such faith! Healed wounds and scars except the hands, feet, and side of Jesus. Thomas saw them and recognized His Lord. Forever testaments of His love for us—hinted in the appearance in heaven, in John’s great Revelation, of the Lamb who was standing as though it had been slain, but lives in Revelation 5:6. Or in the prophecy of Isaiah 49:15-16, that “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Marked on Jesus’ hands forever is the signs of His sacrificial love for us. So that we are engraved there—forever in God’s heart and memory—forever His. As one author put it, “Jesus’ wounds are his credentials to the suffering race of human beings.” Jesus did not “stay out of harm’s way”—loves us and freed us from our sins by His blood. Near to our suffering and grief, near with His comfort and forgiveness. His hands held the proof that having loved His own, He loved them to the end (John 13:1).
·         John tells us that all these things he wrote down—the life of Jesus’ His teachings, signs and miracles—written so that you may believe (have faith) . Believe something very specific: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Like Thomas, to get ahold of Jesus’ true identity, and confess Him as our Lord and God. I know who He is, and He is my Lord and my God. And by believing we have life in His name. Jesus did all for us, and wants us, by knowing Him, to share in forgiveness, life and salvation. So casting away all doubt, we put our full trust in Him, and receive the gifts, promises, and life that He gives. Amen.

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

  1. Who was Thomas? What notable things did he say or do in the Gospels? John 11:16; 14:5-6; 21:1-3.

  1. The other 10 disciples had seen the risen Jesus and believed after His first appearance among them, while Thomas was absent. How did Thomas express his skepticism about Jesus’ resurrection, and what it would take to prove it to him? How does Thomas speak to our modern-day skepticism? What was it about the marks and the wounds that would convince him?

  1. How do the enduring scars of Jesus, on His hands, feet, and sides, testify to us and to God the Father? Isaiah 49:15-16; Revelation 1:5; 5:6; Hebrews 10:19-22

  1. How do the wounds of God, wounds endured for us, give us grace and healing? Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24.

  1. How did Thomas’ doubt turn to faith? How did he express (or better: confess) his faith? John 20:28. Why was this confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection so powerful in identifying who Jesus was, as the Christ, the Messiah and true God? Cf. Matthew 12:38-42; 17:9. 

  1. What is the blessing of believing, even though we have not seen? 1 Peter 1:8-9; Hebrews 11:1-3.

  1. Why did John write his Gospel? What is the intention of how these teachings and records of Jesus’ life would affect the reader? John 20:30-31

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12, for Easter Sunday, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, "You have my word!"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
How often have we heard someone promise something, and they said, “You have my word!” “I’ll take you…you have my word.” “It’ll be done by Friday…you have my word.” “I’ll never do that…you have my word.” And we’ve all seen how unreliable people can be. How quickly promises are changed, delayed, or forgotten. Rare is the individual who lives up to the phrase, “My word is my bond.” Rare indeed is the individual who can always be counted on to never break their promises. Many strive to keep their word, and I hope that we all do earnestly and sincerely, but who can be found that never broke a promise? We’re conditioned by repeated disappointments or let downs, to be skeptical of those who say, “You have my word.”
The disciples of Jesus, both the remaining 11 and the women who were the closest followers of Jesus, had His Word as well. Three distinct times before His death, He’d predicted His death and resurrection. On the night when He was betrayed, He’d even scheduled their first rendezvous after He’d risen from the dead! “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matt. 26:31). But the events of Good Friday had all but erased those words from their memory. Many of the faithful women had seen the horrible events up close and personal. The disciple John was there at the cross when He died. Many were no doubt further back in the crowd, hiding in the sea of anonymous faces, lest they be identified as Jesus’ disciples too.
Their hearts, minds, and nerves must have been raw and torn from the bitter loss of the dear Lord Jesus. He had spoken with such uncompromising truth and sincerity, with compassion and love for the lost. So many lives changed by His Word, His miracles, His touch. Their own lives had been changed. But now it all must have seemed a shattered hope and dream. What strength to go on? What of His teachings about the coming kingdom of God? Could they have been mistaken? How could He keep His Word now? Their grief blurred their memory.
Friday evening, there wasn’t even time for a proper burial. Sabbath began that sundown, and there was no time for the women to pay their respects, by giving Him a decent burial. Holy Saturday must have dragged on like an eternity. Pastor Mike Hintze described the women going to the grave with their aromatic spices as trying to cope with death. The spices couldn’t make the death of Jesus any better, but could only help to make things ‘bearable.’ Cover up the odor of death, pay their tokens of respect and love. We’re familiar with the routines and rituals that help us cope with death, maybe not the same ones—but we’ve all tried to “beautify” death in some way to try to make it more bearable. But what were those women to do, when they came to the tomb to cope with their despair—spices in hand—and the object of their despair was gone? That there was no longer any pain or grief to bear with, only sheer, unexpected joy! Death had not broken Christ’s word! Christ’s word and His death had broken death! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Stunned and perplexed, they were suddenly awestruck by the appearance of two angels, in dazzling white clothing. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen!” You’re spices are not needed here—He’s alive! You won’t find Jesus among the dead ever again! What a jolt! And it was real! They would soon see and touch and feel for themselves. And then the angels reminded them of Jesus’ Word—“’Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.’ And they remembered His Words.” Like a thousand brilliant light bulbs going on at once, they were struck with the realization that this was all as Jesus had planned and told them! He hadn’t broken His Word! Death hadn’t gotten in the way of Him keeping His promises, but this was exactly what they should have expected! Jesus had kept His Word! And they rushed to tell the disciples.
But when they told the disciples of the empty tomb, and the words of the angels, “these words seemed to [the apostles] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” In other words their response was: don’t try to cheer me up with silly stories! Why can’t you accept cold hard facts and leave us alone! Weren’t you there when they took down His lifeless body? Didn’t you see the spear pierce His side? The blood and the water? You followed Joseph of Arimathea and the soldiers as they placed His corpse in the tomb. What don’t you get?! It’s no use to try to comfort us. He’s dead. As if to say, “Don’t let the light crowd in on my gloom!” The despair of the disciples still hung thick in the air. You sense their impatience with the women. But just enough hope is stirred in the hearts of Peter and John, that they start a footrace to the empty tomb to see for themselves.
We recognize this skeptical thinking, because we live in a supposedly scientific age, where supposedly things are only believed on cold, hard, tested fact. Nothing seems so irreversible and final as death. Nothing seems so impossible as rising from the dead. But you don’t have to come from a scientific age to think like that. Our human experience of death and dying conditions us to believe that death is the final end. Even when something deeply imprinted on our soul tells us there must be more. But what kind of hope do we have? Wishful thinking that will cheer us up only until we die? A hope only for this life, and not for the next?
Many who would hear of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, would like to reduce it to just an idle tale, the talk of some grief-stricken women, just as the disciples did. Or other theories to explain it away—stolen body, a reinvigoration or resuscitation of Jesus in the tomb. Namely anything short of the real rising of Jesus to life, when He had really, truly been dead. Because THAT would be a miracle! Not just ‘a’ miracle, but THE miracle that shatters all that we thought was real and final about death. To believe this miracle means we have to set aside our preconceptions about death. It means we take Jesus at His Word, and believe the incredible promise: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
And Jesus’ rising, ONLY shatters death if His body really was dead, bled out, lifeless and cold. And ONLY if this same Jesus, in the body, was up and walking around in flesh and blood, alive again. Any other sleight of hand, any other explaining away of the evidence, won’t do. The apostle Paul said as much—himself converted from unbelief by seeing the risen Lord Jesus, he said, “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”…and “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:19, 14). Paul knew what was at stake if you doubt or dismiss this central teaching of the Christian faith—that Jesus has risen bodily from the dead. He said if you give up this, you may as well sell off the whole Christian religion. It’s all worthless if Jesus isn’t risen from the dead. If it’s not true, then the knee jerk reaction of the disciples was right—it’s just an idle tale.
But Paul could paint it so starkly, because his confidence was so strong in the resurrection of Jesus. Not only had Paul seen Jesus himself, but he’d catalogued over 500 eyewitnesses, in addition to the disciples, who’d seen Jesus alive after his death. Paul could venture so boldly as to stake everything on the resurrection of Jesus because he knew this was no idle tale, but it was the very words of Jesus coming true, just as He had said. Paul and the other eyewitnesses were ready to die to defend what they’d heard from Jesus, what they’d seen with their eyes, looked upon and touched with their hands, concerning this word of life (1 John 1:1). Paul and the rest of the disciples, the women and all the eyewitnesses, could so boldly bank everything on Jesus’ resurrection because of what it meant that it’s true! If false, then everything is lost. If true, then everything is gained! Since Christ has been raised from death, heaven stands open to us, forgiveness is real, and death is not the end.
Pastor Hintze described this realization: “See, you think you've accepted reality? and all of a sudden, reality is really bigger than you thought!” And “nothing’s impossible once it’s happened.” Death had seemed the ultimate reality for the disciples, when the women first told their report. For many today, death remains an inescapable darkness and end. But the inescapable reality of Jesus’ resurrection rained down on the disciples’ heads, crashed in on their disbelief, their skepticism, and it made them go and see for themselves. And Jesus spent the next 40 days appearing to them in the body, eating, drinking, walking, talking and touching them. He showed them “many convincing proofs”—the book of Acts says. The impossible had happened. Once something’s happened, it’s no longer impossible. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Jesus has proved Himself as good as His Word. He has kept His Word because it’s impossible for God to lie. He said He would conquer death and sin, and He did, and we can bank everything on His promises. Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, is not about vague hopes of renewal or idle tales, but it’s about the very Word of life, and the Living Lord Jesus. There’s everything to be gained, by believing Him. There is forgiveness for your sins, by trusting Him as your Savior. There is a new life to begin now—as He renews you by His Holy Spirit to live after Him without fear. There is true comfort in the face of death—a comfort that doesn’t mask death to make it more bearable—but a lasting comfort that stands firm on Jesus’ unchanging Word. And there is the promise that when we go to our grave, and we take this faith in Christ with us—that He will take us with Him to everlasting life.
In the light of this incredible Easter news, it’s unthinkable that we would retreat into the gloom of defeat, and hang our heads. Or that we’d let ourselves stand victim to be defeated by sin and death. Instead, we’re called forward to repent of our sin, give it over to Jesus, and praise God and rejoice in Jesus’ victory over death. Life just can’t remain the same when you know that Jesus has risen from His grave. There is hope and a future we never had before. We don’t live our lives inching our way toward defeat and the grave, but rather boldly preparing to enter Christ’s victory for us. All you who live and believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life! And you have His Word on it! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Amen. 

Sermon on Psalm 41 for Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus was betrayed. "Betrayal or Loyalty?"

David wrote the Psalm in a time of crisis—he speaks of his illness, his enemies wishing harm and death upon him, hoping for his death and the end of his legacy. And as if that weren’t bad enough, his close and trusted friend betrayed him. “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” It probably felt like being kicked when you were down….by your friend. Or one you thought was your friend. Betrayal was one of the worst wounds. Psalm 41 may refer to the time when David’s kingdom was in turmoil, with his son Absalom plotting his overthrow and stealing the hearts of the people. One of David’s most trusted friends, his advisor Ahithophel—betrayed him and joined with the treasonous Absalom in the conspiracy. Ahithophel fits the bill for a close, trusted friend, who dined with David, but then betrayed him. And when the conspiracy began to fail, Ahithophel saw the writing on the wall, and hung himself. Regardless of whether the unnamed traitor in the Psalm and Ahithophel were one and the same, they were fitting precursors to Judas—the close table companion who betrayed Jesus, and then hung himself. History had repeated itself.
And Jesus implied as much when He quoted David’s Psalm, “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me”—referring to Judas’ coming betrayal. It was all happening to fulfill the Scripture. Just as David’s betrayer foreshadowed Judas, so also some of David’s troubles foreshadowed Jesus’ as well. Jesus faced the same hatred, which peaked on this night of dark actions, of betrayal and plotting, of sham trials and false accusations and empty words. David had said, “My enemies say of me, ‘When will he die, and his name perish?’” Jesus’ enemies might well have been hoping for the same thing. Months or more(?) of plotting for His death, were now culminating in a few final deeds of wickedness. The wheels were in motion, and no one would intervene to stop them. Perhaps they hoped that with Jesus’ death, His name too would perish—His teachings, His legacy, His claims to be Messiah. For any other messiah-pretenders, this had and would always be true. False prophets, liars and false christs were nothing new—and when they died, their movements died as well. But if they hoped the same for Jesus, they were sorely mistaken.
Far from killing off His teachings and His name with Him, the very opposite occurred. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:24-26). When Jesus died and was buried in the earth, like a seed He sprouted and bore much fruit. Rather than extinguishing the life of Jesus and everything He taught, the crucifixion and death of Jesus was the sowing of the seed that would bear abundant fruit. When Jesus rose from the grave, the power of this miracle became like a sprouting seed that burst forth into many heads of grain, and Jesus’ disciples grew by the thousands.
Like David had prayed: “But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them! By this I know that you delight in me: my enemy will not shout in triumph over me. But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” God was gracious to Jesus and raised Him up in triumph over His enemies. The day for His enemies to shout in triumph would never arrive. So it continues for Christ’s body the church through the ages. Countless times over the centuries, the enemies of God have forecast the death of the church, the death of God, or the death of faith. But that day of triumph never comes, and their predictions never come true, because as Jesus said, the gates of hell shall never prevail over the church. The church stands unmoved through the changes and chances of history, even despite the hypocrisy and betrayal of some of its own members, because Christ our head is unmovable and steadfast. Jesus could rejoice with David that God upheld Him because of His integrity, and set Him in the Lord’s presence forever. Jesus’ integrity, His innocence, was vindicated—His name was cleared—when God raised Him from the dead. Instead of erasing Jesus name forever, His enemies were part of God’s plan in establishing His name forever. Jesus sits even now at God’s right hand—God’s eternal approval of His life, death, and resurrection—His victory over sin.
Let’s return to the verses from John 12, quoted before: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus speaks of His death, but also of our discipleship. To lose our life, to hate our life in this world, so that we may keep it for eternal life. To serve and follow Jesus, so that we will be with Him. Jesus describes the loyalty and faithfulness of discipleship. The very opposite of betrayal and plotting. If Judas portrays for us the worst failure of friendship and discipleship, Jesus teaches us where true discipleship is to be found.
To be loyal even unto death. To follow Jesus in taking up our cross of suffering, and to follow Him. That when He is scorned and mocked, we don’t stand back to preserve our own life and our own sense of honor—but commit our life and our honor to Jesus and God our Father. That like a true loyal friend we stand in solidarity with Him. That would be the portrait of true discipleship, and it’s what we are called to, to take up our cross and follow Him.
And that’s what Peter promised Him—His undying loyalty—that very night. To lay down even his life for Jesus. The other disciples said the same. But Jesus knew that even this well-intentioned promise wouldn’t be kept. Peter would deny Jesus. Jesus had said, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matt. 26:30-35). All the disciples would fall away, because of Jesus! To fulfill yet another prophecy, they would all be scattered away from Him. Cowardice and fear scattered them, and Jesus faced the judgment of sin and the scorn of the enemies alone. He alone could survive it. He alone could endure the strike of death against the shepherd, to spare the flock and carry all our sins down to the grave. Even cowardice, disloyalty, and unfaithfulness. All our abandonment, our rebellion, and running from the cross. “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee!” He alone could survive it! The Shepherd rises up from the grave to bring the flock back together!
We pray together with David to our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer: “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!’” Forgive us for all our disloyalty, and our faltered trust. Forgive us for when we stood back from you to save our own skin. Be gracious to us and heal us. And so He does. He makes us His table companions once again, forgiving our sins, bringing us back to His table as His close friends, sharing with us His body and blood, that paid the price for our redemption. He feeds us on His sustaining life, placing into our hands His very body and pouring into our mouth His very blood shed on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He takes our sin and makes it His, and gives His forgiveness and life and makes it ours. He gathers back the scattered flock, reunites them under His living body and blood, and keeps us in His presence.
For we have the pressing need for His very body and blood, so that we may remain faithful and loyal to Him. Scattered from Him we’re weak, cowardly, and fearful. But nourished and fed by Him, joined in body and blood to our very Shepherd, we can take up our cross and follow Him. His very bodily presence strengthens and preserves us in body and soul to life everlasting. As He ever strengthens our trust and confidence in Him—as He loves us and gives out His life for us—He makes us to stand, firm and loyal to Him. He makes us to stand so that we can ever proclaim His praises—the praises of His undying name and glory: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen!”