Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22, for the 6th Sunday of Easter, "The Gift of Good Conscience"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today in our reading from 1 Peter, the phrase “good conscience” appears twice. Once it’s in the context of a Christian living out their faith in Jesus and doing good, while suffering persecution or opposition—yet being able to have a good conscience. The second time it’s about our appeal to God in baptism for a good conscience. Today we’re going to see what this Scripture tells us about the gift of a good conscience, and how to keep our conscience clear.
Have you noticed nowadays how even non-religious people are very aware of guilt? It’s no surprise that they often try to deal with it in a variety of ways that are very different from the Christian answer to guilt—which in short, is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. But it shows that guilt is very troubling for people. Sometimes we perceive that it originates from inside us; while other times we blame others for imposing guilt on us (isn’t that ironic?). But how can people best deal with their guilt? I often see examples in the media of people trying to deny any guilt for their actions, or convincing themselves that there is nothing to feel guilty for. On the one hand, it’s very disturbing  to anticipate the results of people learning to ignore their conscience—it can’t be good. On the other hand, as Christians, we do share the legitimate concern of not having people burdened by false guilt—which is when we feel guilty for something that is not actually wrong. The best way to avoid this, as a Christian, is to have your conscience rightly informed from the Word of God, about what is right and wrong. But in any case, the widespread awareness and sensitivity to issues of guilt betrays a troubled conscience. And today’s Scripture directs us where to find a good conscience.
St. Peter seems to be writing to Christians who are perhaps facing some hesitation, reluctance, or fear to continue doing good, or openly profess their faith in Jesus as Lord—because they were running into persecution and opposition for doing good. He says, “who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” He doesn’t want them to lose their enthusiasm or to become discouraged just because doing good proved harder than they expected. It’s easy to understand how obstacles and even hostility can persuade someone to give up—even if they are pursuing a good and worthwhile endeavor. The people who have organized the Pregnancy Center have share the many struggles and obstacles they faced, that almost made them want to give up on multiple occasions, but how God kept providing and leading in unexpected ways. People with a longer memory than mine could tell you the same about the struggles and trials that our church and schools inevitably went through in 40 plus years. Both you as families and as individual Christians can recount in your own lives, how God has carried you through difficult times. Or perhaps your are still pressing through them.
But he gives this encouragement:
“Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

We are encouraged to know that while we may suffer for a time for doing good, we will nevertheless be blessed. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5, are a good place to reflect on the blessings of living the Christian life, even when it’s not well-received by the world. Not only will those blessings include a present peace and joy, and a good conscience, but they also lead to the greater future joys of heaven.
When Peter tells us to have no fear or be troubled, he is echoing the words of Jesus, who said that the cost of being a disciple included opposition and hatred from the world—but that if we feared God, we have nothing to fear from them, because whatever they can do to our body, our life, and our material possessions, they can do nothing to harm our soul. And everything in this world is worth nothing to us if we forfeit our soul.
But we’re also called to a readiness to speak a defense for the hope that we have in us. Why would we need to do that? If we persist in doing good, if we stand up for our faith with gentleness and respect in our words and conduct, this can be a powerful witness to others. They just might find it surprising to see Christians endure mistreatment with grace and showing love in return, rather than responding with rudeness, anger, bitterness, or anything else that might be expected when someone lies about you or slanders you, or treats you badly. Or they might just find the peace and the joy that a Christian has, to be intriguing, and want to know more. In either case, we should be ready to give an answer, or a defense for the hope that we have.
There are several things involved here: first, being prepared logically means some preparation is involved. Many of us fear that we couldn’t speak if called upon to do so. But prepared doesn’t mean that we individually have to be capable of giving an articulate dissertation on the Christian faith. But we can all simply tell about the love of God in Christ Jesus. The preparation to speak about our faith comes from attending church, hearing sermons, going to Bible class or Sunday school, reading good Christian material that teaches us the faith, or listening to good Christian radio or other resources that can equip us to know why we believe and what we believe, or how to respond to the many challenges we daily encounter.
Second, to give such a witness, or a defense, with gentleness and respect, so that we can have a good conscience, is a difficult task. We have to resist the sinful urge to counter slander with slander of our own, or to give those who mistreat us a “piece of our mind”—this is a difficult thing. Because to respond with animosity or hatred would destroy or deeply compromise our witness. To give a positive witness under the circumstances of being mistreated, mocked, or insulted for doing what is good, or for your faith, is to show strength under pressure. It gives shape and meaning to some of the opening words of Peter’s letter: 1 Peter 1:6–7 (ESV) 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is a faith tested by fire and by trials.
We may feel totally inadequate for such a calling. We may already be aware of the times when we responded to mistreatment in an unkindly or disrespectful way. How is the Christian to keep a good conscience in the midst of this? How are we to get a clean conscience in the first place—or to renew our conscience once we have been alerted to our sin?
Thankfully, the second half of the lesson goes right to the heart of this matter. Christ suffered for our sins, once for all—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. He took upon Himself all our guilt and shame, so that He might exchange with us all of His innocence and honor. Jesus is not only the premier example of strength and grace under fire—and of enduring suffering, insult, and opposition for doing what is good—but He also endured all of this to accomplish something positive for us. It wasn’t merely a heroic example we could never follow, but it was His redeeming work, done to save us from any and every sin and guilt that might trouble our conscience. It was no accident or mistake that God gave us a conscience to alert us about right and wrong—and we do well to pay attention to that God-given voice that calls us to repent. And in Jesus we find the One who can give the troubled conscience peace through the forgiveness of our sins, and by bringing us to God.
Peter summarizes Jesus’ righteous suffering, death, resurrection, and descent into hell, as we confess in our Creed, and then he compares the judgment and salvation that God worked in the Old Testament through the Flood, to the corresponding New Testament reality of Baptism, in which we are also judged and saved. How so? Baptism, we are told elsewhere in Scripture, is the death of our old sinful nature, as we are crucified vicariously with Christ through Baptism—but it’s also life and salvation for us as we are raised to new life in Christ Jesus’ resurrection. “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.” More Creed-like language. And the reference to good conscience.
Here we learn that Baptism saves us—not as an ordinary bath or washing—but as an appeal, a request to God for a clean conscience. I titled this sermon, “the gift of a good conscience” to highlight just this point—that a good conscience is a gift from God. We don’t cleanse our own conscience by denial, or by passing the blame, or by ignoring it—but we have appealed to God in baptism for the forgiveness of our sins, so that we might have a clean conscience. And God most certainly delivers in Baptism what we have asked, giving us a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There we see the crucial connection between baptism and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some people get troubled or confused by this verse because they think of baptism as something separate or disconnected from Jesus and His death and resurrection—or as something additional to it. This verse makes it abundantly clear that baptism is delivering to us what Jesus accomplished in His resurrection. So it is no contradiction to say with the scripture that baptism saves, and also that Jesus alone saves—because baptism only delivers to us what Jesus has accomplished on the cross and in His resurrection. Namely the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life! It’s God’s chosen delivery system!
And here the Christian can rest in good conscience. They can find the courage and strength to bear up under difficulty and live a life that zealously pursues what is good, and winsomely gives defense for the hope that we have, with all gentleness and respect. Because the Christian who has died to their old sinful nature in baptism, and has been reborn a new person in the new life of Jesus Christ, can face life with all its many challenges and opportunities with the assurance that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20). In Him we have the gift of a good conscience, and we have the one who lives in us to guide us to all that is good and right, and who forgives and renews us whenever we stumble or turn away—always patient to lead us and to love us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. When and why might Christians suffer for doing good? Why should they not be afraid? 1 Peter 3:13-17; Matthew 10:26-33. What gives the Christian comfort and cheer in the face of opposition for doing good?
  2. We are always to be prepared to give a defense for the hope we have. The way that Christians give their answer or defense makes a big difference though. How are we to answer and conduct ourselves with unbelievers or outsiders to the church? 1 Peter 3:15-16; Colossians 4:5-6; Mark 9:50.
  3. How does a Christian keep a “good conscience” when being persecuted for their faith or their good deeds? What would give us a guilty conscience with our behavior toward others?
  4. How did Jesus suffer for doing good? What encouragement does that give us toward doing good in spite of opposition? Jesus’ death, resurrection, and His preaching to the “spirits in prison” is the basis of our understanding in the Creed about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” See also Acts 2:25-32, Romans 10:5-10; Ephesians 4:8-10; Colossians 2:9-15.
  5. How was the judgment and salvation that God accomplished through Noah’s flood a type or foreshadowing of what God does in baptism? 1 Peter 3:21 tells us “Baptism…now saves you…”. How does baptism save? v. 21-22.
  6. What gifts that Jesus has won for us through His death and resurrection, does baptism deliver to us? Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27. How do we get a good conscience from Christ in baptism? How does Christ renew our conscience to be clear from sin and guilt, and to guide us in life? 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sermon on 1 Peter 2:2-10, for the 5th Sunday of Easter, "Royal Priesthood"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Last week’s sermon highlighted the personal love and individual care that we have in Jesus, our Good Shepherd; in whom I lack nothing. This Biblical reality is very comforting for us as Christians, but it is also very easy for us to hear, because it fits well with American individualism. But if we limit ourselves to a personal, individual description of the faith, we put blinders on ourselves to the vast importance and beautiful descriptions of our corporate life together as Christians. Perhaps harder for us to hear is that God intended us for community and interdependence. The Christian is part of something much greater than themselves, and greater than their individual relationship with God; we are the body of Christ. Or as Peter describes it in our reading today—a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, etc. All are plural descriptions of the church, not singular. How does this instruct us to live out our calling together in a Christ-like way?
Peter’s descriptions of the church lose all their meaning if we turn them from the plural to the singular. A single stone—living or not—cannot make a house. A priesthood itself requires many people, and the very role of priests is to intercede for, or sacrifice for others. A single person cannot be a nation. But when many individuals are brought together or are united into one body or house, they serve a greater purpose and good than any could individually on their own.
So who is this chosen race, this royal priesthood, holy nation, a people for God’s possession? The last verse says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Before you had no identity as a people—now you have an identity as God’s people. And your identity is those who have received God’s mercy. Gathered by God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. The royal priesthood, therefore, is the whole community of believers in Christ Jesus, chosen and precious to God, just as Jesus Christ was chosen and precious to God as the chief cornerstone of the building.
A cornerstone was the first stone to be laid in a building, and at the corner, it aligns the first two walls. At the base of the building, it provides a foundation. Jesus is both the foundation of the church, as well as the Truth that draws everything into alignment. The church that builds on and aligns itself to Him stands true. Any building that does not have Christ as cornerstone is no more than a dead replica—bearing only outward resemblance as a dead body might to a living body—but without breath and life. Because the church that Peter describes is not a bricks and mortar building, but made of “living stones”—both Christ and us. So the church of God is not made or defined by a building or a sign that says “church”; it is not a hierarchy or an institution; it’s not a denomination or a non-denomination. The church can exist within or without any of these, but it is not the same as these things. Rather the church is believers—living stones—integrated together on Christ Jesus, our living cornerstone. Or in last week’s metaphor, the sheep of God’s pasture; the flock gathered around Jesus their Good Shepherd.
The contrast to living is obviously “dead.” So as “living stones” we are not just a passive wall of rock, locked in by other bricks and mortar, with nothing to do but rest. Rather we are an active, breathing organism. Our purpose and direction comes from Christ our living cornerstone, so that all our action and service reflects not us as individuals or lone agents, but reflects Christ and His purpose for the church. As living stones, your life and service is both within these walls and outside these walls. As you have opportunity to do good, you are to do good for everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). First we serve our fellow Christians who are in need, but cannot stop there, but go and serve all as we have opportunity. And whenever we do so, whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Christ.
You see, primary to being Christ-like members of this royal priesthood, is that we do not live only for ourselves (individualism)—but we live outside ourselves and for others. As one pastor put it, “the life of faith in Christ and the life of love for the neighbor.” The mercy of God that calls and gathers us, pulls us out of ourselves and our self-interest and into the life of Jesus Christ and the needs of our neighbor.
So what is this about a “royal priesthood”? It combines two images—one of royalty, which makes us think of ruling, of kings, queens, princes and princesses—and one that is priestly, which makes us think of sacrifices and intercession. So how are Christians a royal priesthood, and what is Christ-like about this communal calling of ours? Or perhaps its simpler to ask, how is Jesus both Priest and King, and how does that relate to our calling?
First of all, Jesus is our Great High Priest who sacrificed Himself for our sins once for all, to put an end to the old sacrifices, and once and for all to pay the penalty for our sin as a pure and perfect substitute. Jesus did this high priestly work when He died on the cross—where He was both rejected by men but also chosen and precious in God’s sight. He was and is rejected by men for all sorts of reasons—because they don’t want to believe in their own sinfulness and need for a Savior; because they don’t believe He is the Son of God; or because the manner of His death is offensive to us. But for God, this was the way in which He was most glorified—in the perfect love that sacrificed Himself for sinners, to bring us back to God in mercy.
And so on this Cornerstone, God builds a church of priests, a holy priesthood, to do the priestly and Christ-like thing of making sacrifices. What kind of sacrifices? Not animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, which have ended, but the New Testament calls on us to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices.” Our lives are dedicated as a priesthood to God. The New Testament describes our Christian sacrifices as being our good works that we do in service to our neighbor; as our praises that we lift to sing and proclaim the excellencies of what God has done; and our charitable offerings given for the sake of God’s kingdom and the need of our neighbor. The countless ways that you can serve your neighbor are shown by the need of your neighbor and the ways in which you can fill that need. We should always be opening our eyes to discover those needs. The sacrifices of praise that we offer show that Christians, as God’s royal priesthood, have the honor of telling forth what God has done for us—calling us out of darkness into light. This is good news to celebrate in worshipping Him, and to share by telling others, so they can receive that joy and salvation also. Giving offerings is sacrificial of our time, talent, or treasure, as we use what God has entrusted to us, not merely for our own good, but for the good of others.
Priests are also “intercessors.” They come to God in prayer or petition for someone else. This happens weekly in our church’s prayer chain, as well as in all of your collective prayers as a congregation, as you lift up prayers and concerns for others. It also happens when Christians advocate or seek justice for the voiceless or the helpless. This happens when Christians speak up for or serve those who cannot defend themselves—like the poor, children who are abused or neglected, orphans, widows, the mentally ill, those who are unable to get justice on their own in the courts, the unborn children, those who are infirm or disabled, and so on. To be their voice or to seek justice on their behalf, is a priestly, and a Christ-like thing.
What about the “royal” part of being Christ’s royal priesthood? Scripture informs us that sin and death once reigned over us, but now through the abundance of grace in Christ Jesus, we will reign in life through Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:17ff). We have gone from being subjects of sin and death, without a hope and future, to those who will reign together with Christ Jesus! Not that any of us become independent kings or sovereigns—remember again that these descriptions emphasize our communal life in Christ. But rather we rule as those who have been elevated to the status of sons and daughters of the king. We start to fulfill that dominion that God intended for us to exercise over creation, when He first put Adam and Eve in the garden.
So what is the nature of our reign and our rule? Is it of seizing power or lording our authority over others? Jesus explicitly rejected this idea of power, but told His disciples instead that the first should be last, and the servant is the greatest of all, because the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45). This is often mistaken for weakness, but rather, by Christ’s example we should understand it as putting others’ needs before our own, and leading by example. Thus it is a kingly or queenly and Christ-like thing when Christians show bold, but humble leadership. And it is a Christ-like thing when we sacrifice for others—which shows that kingly and priestly are not separate, but overlapping definitions of who we are in the royal priesthood.
Perhaps this high and noble calling as God’s royal priesthood sounds wonderful and good to you, but you feel impossibly condemned, that you cannot or have not lived it out. Maybe it only makes you more aware of your own self-centeredness, and it seems too great for you to live so sacrificially and self-giving toward others. And truly, if your trust was in your own strength, that would all be true. We were not meant to do it alone. But the Holy Spirit turns your faith outward, from your own self-centeredness to Jesus Christ, your hope and your cornerstone, the living stone on which we are all built, from whom comes all our strength.
As we began by understanding that we are God’s people because we have received His mercy, so also we end by understanding the same. Our identity begins and ends in Him. It is only by the mercy and love of God for us in Christ Jesus, that we have been given this chosen and precious calling as His royal priesthood. And God who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). You are God’s chosen people and His royal priesthood because He has called you by name, and He has said that this is what you are. And you are! By God’s grace, by the mercy of Christ Jesus, and the power of His name. He has not left you short-handed or short-supplied for anything that He has called you to do, and surrounds you with the Christian community of fellow believers to build you up in mutual love, support, and encouragement toward one another. So much more could be said about our life together as believers.
Whatever your faults, sins, and failings are in service or in love, confess them and commit them to your Lord and Savior. His death is more than sufficient for all your sins and failings, and His love and grace is all-sufficient for your needs, your life, and your calling. So live with joy and proclaim His excellencies, and know that whoever believes in Him will never be put to shame. In the Name of our Great High Priest and King of Kings, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen to audio at:

  1. According to 1 Peter 2, how is the church of God “constructed”, or what is it made of? What is it’s cornerstone? As the first stone to be laid, and connecting two walls, it is both foundational and gives alignment to the other stones built on top of it. This communicates Jesus’ prominence, His direction for the church, and His necessity as the church’s foundation.
  2. Where does this idea of the “cornerstone” come up in the Old Testament, and how is it prophetic of Jesus? Isaiah 28:16; Psalm 118:21-24. What does Peter mean by Jesus being the living stone that was “rejected by men?” How has God made Jesus “chosen and precious”, despite this rejection by men?
  3. Peter adds another description into the mix, calling the church “a holy priesthood” or a “royal priesthood.”. What is the origin in the Bible of this term? Exodus 19:5-6. In the Old Testament, it applies to the people of Israel—to whom is it applied in the New Testament? 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9; Revelation 1:5-6; 5:10.
  4. The title: “royal priesthood” combines two different pictures, that of king, and priest. In what way is the Christian church “kingly”? What kind of “reign” do Christians experience by faith? Romans 5:17, 22; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:10. In what is the Christian church “priestly?” What priestly work is ours to fulfill? 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 Peter 2:9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 25:40.
  5. What is Christ-like about this life of the royal priesthood? How is everything that Christ has done foundational for the shape of our Christian life? How does Christ keep the church in alignment to Him? Ephesians 2:20; Acts 2:42. How does our identity and our status as a royal priesthood originate in God’s mercy? 1 Peter 2:10

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sermon on John 10:1-10, for the 4th Sunday of Easter, "The Shepherd"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. If we were to ask the kids at church, “If you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”, we’d get a variety of fun answers. Maybe a dinosaur because it’s huge and fierce. Maybe an eagle that could soar above everything in the sky. Maybe a cheetah because it’s so fast. Maybe a dolphin that could play in the ocean. Probably a sheep is not too high in the rankings for most kids. Probably not what we would choose for ourselves. Sheep are not particularly glamorous creatures. Not fast, strong, or fierce. Rather, they don’t have very good eyesight, are prone to get stuck or be in trouble, and are relatively defenseless. But Psalm 100:3 joyously announces to us, Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” We are the sheep of His pasture, and He made us! So God why is it such a wonderful thing? Why would anyone want to be a sheep?  
Because sheep have a Good Shepherd who loves them and protects them! While sheep may not seem impressive, Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most tender and beloved images in all the Bible, and Christian art. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a few of those words might be: safety, strength, protection, comfort, guidance, and love. Shepherds are common in the Bible, from Jacob lifting the great stone from the well to water his uncle Laban’s flocks, to David rescuing his flock from lions and bears, to the prophets calling the leaders of Israel to task for being poor shepherds who were abusing and mistreating the sheep of God’s pasture. The best thing a sheep has going for them is that they have a good shepherd—and in Jesus Christ we have that Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.
On the other hand, sheep without a shepherd don’t fare too well. In fact this was one of the reasons Jesus had so much compassion on the helpless and hurting masses of people that He daily encountered in Israel. He saw that they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” And one of the biggest threats to sheep is to be led away from their shepherd. This is why Jesus describes the “thieves and robbers,” who show by their illegal entry that they have bad intentions for the sheep. The difference between a thief and a robber, by the way, is that a robber adds violence to the crime of stealing. Because false teachers or leaders don’t proclaim the word of Christ, we will not hear Jesus’ voice from them, but the voice of a stranger. They mean harm for the sheep and either abuse and mistreat them, or lead them astray from Jesus, the Shepherd.
Examples of these dangers to the church are too many to name, but through countless attacks, Christians are led away from the Christ and the fold of His church. Attacks that are directed at Jesus’ Word—the Bible. Attacks on Jesus Himself—who He is, what He has done, or even His very existence. Attacks on other sheep—turning us against one another because of a weakness or hypocrisy we discover in another sheep, while often blind to our own. This prevents us from living together as all those who need to gather under our Shepherd’s care. Attacks directly on us—of great temptations, of great stresses, grief, or losses. Attacks that leave us wounded and bleating, fearful that our Good Shepherd has abandoned us. Thieves and robbers assault the church from many angles, even from within, climbing in, as Jesus warns in the other gospels, as wolves dressed in sheepskin, to deceive. The Bible warns us that our enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. But our Good Shepherd is not afraid of any of those enemies, and has faced and defeated them all for us.
One of the best skills that sheep have is their hearing, and the same should be true of us. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and He calls them each by name. An infant already can recognize the voice of their mother, as opposed to the voice of a strange woman, even from birth. A mother’s voice soothes them, assures them, and loves them. It’s the voice they trust. Even before we realize it, we instinctively learn which voices we can trust, and which we don’t. Not that we are never deceived, or that instincts don’t sometimes lie, but it’s the Christian’s job to discern and listen carefully for the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. In the sermons we hear in church, in what we read or in what we hear in books or in the media, we need to discern when there are false and misleading voices. What speaks against God’s truth? What tries to take God’s place in our life, or replace His promises? What makes us apathetic or unconcerned to hear His voice and follow His call? We need to listen for the voice of Jesus, whom we can trust.
Today our young confirmands are taking a significant step in their faith. They have heard the voice of Jesus their Shepherd; have followed Him since they were little lambs; and today they confess that faith in Jesus before you. Faith in their Good Shepherd who loves them and laid down His life on the cross for them. Pledging to follow Him through all of life, through crosses and joys, and through the valley of the shadow of death. They have learned Jesus’ voice from the Scriptures, and are continuing to grow and learn in the faith, just as we do. Today they receive for the first time, Jesus’ body and blood, as a solemn witness that they have prepared by self-examination, repentance, and faith, to receive this sacrament for the forgiveness of their sins. Many competing voices will calling for your attention through life. But recognize and follow the voice of Jesus, and keep it familiar by the constant hearing of His Word.
If the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy—Jesus, our Good Shepherd comes that we may have life and have it abundantly. If sheep are far better off with a shepherd, than without—what makes life in the flock so much better? Some, I believe, have falsely understood this passage to mean that Jesus is promising material abundance. False teachers have misused Jesus’ words here to bait people into Christianity with promises of wealth and prosperity. But if that’s what Jesus meant, why does He so often warn against the spiritual dangers of wealth, and urge us to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth, where moth and rust destroy? Rather, the abundant life that Jesus, the Good Shepherd gives to His sheep, can come to us both in poverty and in plenty, in sickness or in health—in short it can come to us despite our outward circumstances. So what does that look like for the Christian?
Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want…is the favorite Scripture of many. This Psalm describes that abundant life under the goodness and care of our Shepherd, saying that He provides rest and nourishment for us. He restores our soul. We are not merely physical creatures, not just bodies in motion or biological machines. We have a living soul that can be exhausted, fearful, or driven to despair by the worries, troubles, and cares of this life. And our Shepherd restores our souls. He knows the spiritual nourishment we need from His Word—the healing and forgiveness of our sins, the carrying away of our guilt and our burdens, the strong hand to defend us from our enemies. He knows how best to lead us and carries us through sorrows and grief in this valley of the shadow of death. Jesus goes unafraid before us, as the One who faced His cross and grave with triumph and victory, as He suffered with us and for us on the cross. Jesus goes on to say that the mark of the Good Shepherd is that He lays down His life for the sheep. And this is what Jesus did, only to take it up again, and show that even our worst enemy of death is not to be feared, for Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
A Christian is not just a nameless, faceless member of the herd in Jesus’ flock. We are not lost to Him in a sea of unfamiliar faces and unknown concerns—rather Jesus tells us that He calls His own sheep by name, and He knows them, and they know Him. Jesus knows our needs and well provides them. He is not like a parent with distracted and divided attention, but is able to hear all our prayers, know our individual needs, and treat them all as He knows best. A hymn we sang last week described the “flock” of the church this way: “Women, men, the young, the aging, wakened by the Spirit’s breath.” (LSB 476:4). Truly the flock is a mixed group, needing care in a variety of ways. But all are called by the Holy Spirit, and led by the One Shepherd Jesus Christ. We come from diverse walks of life, from diverse cultures; from diverse jobs; we have people from the youngest to the oldest here—infants, children, young adults, singles, couples, moms (we thank you especially today for your constant love and care!) and dads, grandparents, and everyone else. All are precious lambs in God’s sheepfold, and Jesus love’s each one and calls you by name.
The Lord is my Shepherd, and He prepares table in the presence of my enemies, and my cup overflows—etc—all show the personal nature of God’s care for us. The rich table and the overflowing cup speak again of that abundant life that Jesus intends for His sheep. A life marked by God’s love and concern for our every need; His defense against our enemies; and the generous goodness of His blessings. Today His table is spread for the forgiveness of sins. Two thousand years ago on the cross, He defeated sin, death, and the devil for us, and He constantly carries those gifts forward to you in His Word, in His Baptism, and in His Supper. These keep us in rich and green pastures, well-nourished spiritually and bodily in this life. And the best things are yet to come, for I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Who do the “thieves and robbers” of Jesus’ parable represent? Matthew 7:15-20; 24:11; Acts 20:28-30. How do thieves and robbers try to attack the sheep or lead them astray? What keeps the church united and aware of the false teaching of the wolves? Acts 2:42; 1 John 4:1-6; John 17:17. How do the sheep tell their shepherd apart from strangers?

  1. The sheep and shepherd language is rich throughout the Old Testament. How is God depicted as shepherd of His flock? Psalm 95:7; 23; 80:1-2. How does God rescue His flock? Ezekiel 34:13-16; Jeremiah 23:1-4. Who served as an “under-shepherd” to God’s people Israel (Numbers 27:15-17), and who did he represent, who would come later and be greater than him? John 10:11.

  1. What threats exist for God’s sheep (His people) today? How might they be taken from the fold (the church), abused or injured, led away from Jesus, or to another master?

  1. Jesus uses a second picture to describe His relation to the sheep. How is He the door? What does He keep out? Whom does He let in? John 14:6; Psalm 118:19-20; Acts 4:12.

  1. What kind of “abundant life” does Jesus desire for us? Is He talking about material things, like wealth and earthly success, or something else? Matthew 6:19-21; James 2:1-7. Greater than physical abundance, how does God desire spiritual abundance for us? John 20:31; Psalm 23. Describe the tenderness and care of Jesus as your Good Shepherd? How does the fact that He laid down His life for us and took it up again (John 10:15-18) give us the greatest confidence in His power to save? 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Sermon on Luke 24:13-35, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, "Let's Talk Story"

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! But on that evening of the first Easter, when reports of the empty tomb were circulating among the beleaguered disciples…two disciples were already headed home to Emmaus, shaking their heads in disbelief and gloom, as they left the hotbed of Jerusalem behind.
A familiar phrase here in Hawaii is “talk story.” It’s when friends have a conversation about what’s going on, or catch up on old times. Almost everyone “talks story” about whatever is meaningful or important to them. Unless we don’t feel we have someone we can confide in or trust, most people want to share with someone, what’s going on in their lives. Perhaps to lay down a burden, to share a grief, perhaps to hear a word of encouragement, love, or concern. Sometimes we talk story about things that are sad or confusing; sometimes we talk story about things that are joyful, exciting, or fill us with hope. For some people it comes more naturally then others; and certain people have a natural way of making others feel comfortable to talk.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus were talking story, and it was a sad story. And like most occasions where we have sad stories to tell, there was a real reason for the disappointment, confusion, and sadness they felt. They had seen their Lord terribly mistreated and abused, and unjustly put to death. And alongside them comes another traveler going the same way. It’s Jesus, but His identity is hidden from them. Why? Because He first wants to talk story with them. Instead of revealing Himself right away, and explaining the resurrection, He wants to hear them tell the story of what happened to Him. Apparently He wants to see what’s missing from their story, and help them fill in the blanks.
As they summarize Jesus’ prophetic ministry and miracles, His trial, and crucifixion, they speak as ones who had built up great hopes and expectations on Jesus. But now they speak in the past tense, “We had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.” They sounded disillusioned, and couldn’t make sense of the new information they had heard from the women, about the empty tomb and the words of the angels. Understanding was just around the corner for them. The light was already poking through their gloomy conclusions about the matter, but sadness still held them. And Jesus walked with them in their grief. He did not suddenly try to flip everything upside down, but listened and talked story with them.
So too for us, we may know times of grief where something terrible or some loss or some ongoing trouble has seemingly closed our heart to any comfort. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Christ comes to our side, the only Help of the helpless (LSB 878:1). Though well-meaning friends or loved ones may not have the words to reach us, Christ joins us on our journey, walks with us in our need, and speaks to our heart His life-giving words. He finds and rescues the lost sheep, He finds and mends the wounded traveler left on the roadside for dead.
Jesus’ very presence with those two disciples, and the long time He spent with them on that Day of Days, showed His compassion and love for those who were weakened by doubt and discouraged by fear. Conversationally He restored them little by little, with the Word of God that gives life and that endures forever. Their hearts and eyes were lifted little by little, till the haze of sadness cleared, and they could come into the light of understanding.
Jesus still comes to His disciples today, doing this job that we could never fully do. But we as Christians participate in this job whenever we “talk story” with someone who is hurting and suffering, listening to them, walking with them, telling them the story of Jesus. But it will always be God’s own Word that truly speaks to the heart in ways that no one can fully discern. And when we are embattled by the worries and cares of this life, the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort…comforts us in our affliction, with so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). And Christ invites us to cast our anxieties on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
What word of Scripture will comfort someone we know who walks in sorrow? Or us, for that matter? While we may not always know from situation to situation, it was no mystery what changed the conversation for those Emmaus disciples. It’s no mystery either what gives the ultimate hope that arches over all our various troubles. When Jesus finished listening to their story, He must have surprised them with His reprimand: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” But instead of closing their ears to Jesus at this rebuke, they opened them, and He began to teach in all the Scriptures what it said about Himself.
By the time it was over they marveled how their hearts burned within them as He spoke. It was pure and unexpected discovery and joy for them to see the pieces of the Old Testament puzzle fit together to reveal the beautiful image of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen—the Bible’s great portrait they had not yet seen. And then in a flash of recognition, with His signature action of blessing the bread, breaking it, and giving it to them—this portrait of the Christ that they had just discovered, was now before their very eyes in the risen Jesus. Flesh and bone, hands and scars that proved His love. And in the next moment He was gone, leaving them amazed. But forgetting the late hour and the darkness, they sped back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they had seen, only to hear similar reports! Jesus had been busy that Easter, meeting and greeting and encouraging the various disciples, showing them He had risen from the dead.
The central message of all the Scriptures, and the central message of comfort and hope in a world of sin and death, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All that was necessary according to the prophets. Suffering and death had to precede His glory. The root causes of our sadness and grief—the causes of sin and death—had to be rooted out and destroyed, so that the Garden of God’s creation could one day be fully restored. And now the light poured through the clouds of gloom and darkness and showed them with perfect clarity what Jesus had done for them, in dying on the cross and rising from the dead.
As the Lutheran preacher John Gerhard put it, we also need to have hearts like those disciples—hearts that were “instructable” and humble—that were open to hearing Jesus’ Word. “Whenever we have the resurrection of Christ proclaimed to us from the prophecies of the holy prophets and from the writings of the holy apostles, we should open our ears and hearts and listen with the greatest zeal. For he who is of God, hears God’s Word, John 8:47. A child listens to his parents, from whom he was conceived and born, speaking to him with heart-felt desire and love. If you are born of God, then you will gladly listen to God the Lord speaking to you His Word--especially regarding the resurrection of Christ, by which He has brought such precious gifts along for us” (Gerhard, Postilla, 328).
And then, with the disciples; filled with new joy, we go to “talk story” with others, out of the joy of what we have known and learned in Jesus Christ. People “talk story” about the things that matter most to them. And they longed to hear and know more. This world teaches us so much of disappointment and discouragement, that it’s easy to become cynical and jaded. And indeed there are many false or empty promises out there. But we have the story that’s truly worth telling. Christ has entered our human story, and He has transformed it forever by His death and resurrection. Our personal stories of sadness that so often needlessly preoccupy us, are only part of the story. And when the full light of what Jesus has done for us is shed upon our lives, we are enveloped in a far greater story with a far better ending than we could have written for ourselves. And should we be surprised, since that story is penned by the very Author of Life? And even our griefs are part of the story, though we may not understand them now.
Weigh the promises of Christ and the witness of what He has done. Do they ring true, or hollow? Does Jesus or the apostles seem as men who stood to profit from what they said, or were more likely to suffer for it? If the Words and promises ring true, then believe them with all your heart! It makes all the difference whether you will journey down the road with heads hung in gloom and dismay, or whether your eyes are cast on the Author and Perfecter of our faith and the journey ahead; the road that leads up to the heavenly city. There is nothing better or truer that we can long for than for in this life than the true and living God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God!, the Psalmist cries out. And Christ quenches that thirst and satisfies our hunger with Living Water and the Bread of Life.
It took only that signature action of Jesus, the characteristic way that he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, for the disciples to suddenly recognize Him. God had hidden Jesus’ identity from their eyes till this pivotal moment of the breaking of the bread, so the conversation could run it’s full course, and He could bring them from mournful and lost disciples to believers revived with a new and living hope in Jesus. Jesus had entered their lives again through an ordinary conversation and an ordinary meal—which had both come to an extraordinary conclusion. While so many crave for and search for God in extraordinary experiences, and often find them elusive—Christ Himself comes to us in the breaking of the bread. An ordinary meal, of bread and wine, but leading to an extraordinary encounter and conclusion. In this Supper of our Lord, we eat and drink as He tells us, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood of the covenant, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” And in Him we find the Redeemer that we have hoped for; and on His hands we see the marks of His undying love for us. His journey to heaven is completed; ours is not yet over; but He is with us on the Way. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What are the topics that fill your daily conversation? What matters to you, that you tell others about? What should our conversation be like? Colossians 4:5-6; Ephesians 4:29. What controlled the conversation of the disciples before Jesus began to teach them? Why did they speak of their “hope” in the past tense?
  2. What leaves us discouraged or sad in life? When do you need Jesus’ presence, to come and speak His Words to you? How does Jesus’ response to these weakened and downhearted disciples show us His heart? See also Luke 15:1-7; 10:29-37; Isaiah 42:3; Hebrews 4:15
  3. How does God help us with our worries? 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; 1 Peter 5:7
  4. Why was it good that the disciples were able to bear Jesus’ gentle rebuke (Lk. 24:25-26)? See John 8:47; James 1:21; Psalm 141:5.
  5. How does our story change when Jesus enters into it? Acts 3:15; Hebrews 12:1-2. What sort of Bible study did Jesus lead them on? What did He show them through the Scriptures? Luke 24:27; 244-46; John 5:39. How did it impact their understanding of the salvation story?
  6. How did Jesus at last make Himself known to them? Why was this so familiar to them?
  7. How does Jesus come to us, even in the ordinary? How are we assured of His presence with His people? Matthew 28:20; 18:20; John 14:17, 23.