Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon on John 1:14, for Christmas Day, "John's Christmas Verse"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Good Christian friends, we have waited and worshipped these weeks of Advent, we have yielded to the call of the messenger crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord”, we have followed Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds all the way to Bethlehem, to the manger, to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as the angels told. Baby Jesus nestled in a lowly manger, bringing Joy to the World and Peace on Earth.
But the Gospel of John describes Jesus’ birth with a different phrase. No mention of Mary, mangers, Bethlehem, or shepherds. It’s John’s Christmas Verse: John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” What a deep and wonderful phrase: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the Christmas mystery; a deep and profound truth that does not cease to be a mystery once you know it, but becomes even more mysterious (Kleinig). It’s like the mystery of love, or life—experiencing them does not make them any less wondrous, but more.
Became flesh is plain enough to understand. We all became flesh when we were conceived in the womb of our mother. A new and perfectly unique combination, a singular you, yet inseparably connected with the rest of the human race. Heart, brain, lungs, eyes. Jesus too became flesh, inseparably connected to the rest of the human race. Born of the same genetic material as His mother, the Virgin Mary. But the Virgin mother! No human father conceived Him, but as the angel told Mary, she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This past Wednesday we listened as the angel confirmed the same truth to Joseph, who became Jesus’ adoptive, earthly father. When Jesus became flesh, it was as the only-begotten of the Father—God’s own Son, but conceived in Mary’s womb, of Mary’s flesh also. His true Father was God.
The Word became flesh, in the shortest way possible, communicates that Jesus was human and divine, at the same time. He is God—He did not leave that behind, surrender it, or become some demigod or angel. But at the same time that He is God, He is also man—conceived and born with real human flesh and blood. Back up to John 1:1 for a moment, and look back at who this “Word” is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word was God, and the next verse goes on to say that He made all things. So weigh in another profound truth—the Creative Word of God, is now the Incarnate Word, or the Word made flesh. The powerful God who created the universe, was gently grasping the fingers of Joseph and Mary, with infant hands.
But why do this? Why would God personally become a living man, part of His creation? Why come to His own people, whom He had made, only to be rejected by them, to be treated as unwelcome—no, worse, to be treated as a blasphemer, who must be killed? The second verse of our sermon carol, “What Child is This?” answers our question:
Why lies he in such mean estate,  Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here  The silent Word is pleading:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,  The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,  The babe, the Son of Mary!
The Word made flesh came to bear the cross for us—to plead before God for us sinners.
Here is more mystery—God has, throughout human history, experienced all the outrageous sins of the human race—sins against Him. All ten of His commandments that have habitually broken, worshipping other gods, taking God’s Name in vain, neglecting His day of worship and rest, dishonoring parents, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting what belongs to our neighbors. In every way that we are sinners, God is rightly angered and displeased that we have not cared for one another as His commandments show. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not worshipped Him purely and kept His Name holy.
But the mystery, is that God came and occupied the lowly manger, a food trough for animals. He endured the nails and spear that pierced Him through, and bore the cross. This, to redeem us. To pay off the cursed debt of sin, so that we could be pardoned, so that He could make us children of God and heirs of His promises. For the thankless task of bearing the cross and the sin of the world, for enduring the selfish treatment of human beings rejecting their own Maker—for this we are called to “Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary.” Hail Him, bring Him your highest praises and loudest songs. Bow your head in humility before your King, who stooped so low to serve you, to travel from manger, to cross, to empty tomb. For no thanks and praise can ever repay Him—but He demands no payment—only that we receive Him, that we believe in His Name, and thereby become His children. Not by our will or by human flesh, but born of God, in second birth, by the Holy Spirit. The new birth of baptism: water and Spirit.
So far, the Word became flesh. But what mystery is hidden in the phrase, Dwelt among us? Dwelt could ordinarily mean to take up residence somewhere. To live together with us. Yes, Jesus shared an address with humans on earth. First in Bethlehem, then Egypt for a while, then Nazareth, then as an adult various places throughout Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea. But John means much more than just that Jesus took up His residence with us. His word, for dwelt, is actually to pitch a tent. It’s a word that his readers were sure to notice, and recall another time when God dwelt with His people in a pitched tent.
 The assigned Old Testament reading for Christmas Day is a description of the tabernacle, or tent of worship that Moses was instructed by God to build in the wilderness. The Tabernacle would be the movable worship space while the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land, and for the 40 years of wandering, while they were prevented from entering because of their sin. For generations afterward, over 400 years, till the time of King Solomon, this tent of animal skins and fine cloths and embroidery remained the central worship site for the Israelites. When the original tabernacle was completed, and later when Solomon completed the first Temple, and prayed for God to dwell there—on both occasions, God visibly “moved in”, by the glorious cloud of His presence. He showed through the miraculous cloud of His glory, that He was taking up residence there among His people.
Now why would that old history matter to John’s audience, and to us? What’s the significance of having God dwell with us in the flesh? First of all, we should note that this is not a “temporary” presence. In the Old Testament, when His people introduced idolatry and abominations into His Temple, God withdrew His presence. He wasn’t going to be bound to this spot if they dishonored Him and sought Him no longer. And Jesus “pitching His tent” or “tabernacling among us”, by becoming flesh, was not like a short vacation in a borrowed or rented tent. Jesus didn’t return or surrender His human flesh, His body, when He died, nor when He rose from the grave, nor when He ascended into heaven. Jesus eternally remains the Word made flesh. Not God dwelling at an address, a tent in a certain city of Judea, or in the Temple in Jerusalem, but God dwelling among us in the person of His Son.
Secondly, the tabernacle or Temple was where the priests would intercede to God for sinners. Where they would offer up sacrifices, according to command, to atone for the sins of the people. It was where they sought God’s mercy. But there is no longer a tabernacle or Temple for us to seek intercession with God, through a priest. Rather, we have Jesus, our Great High Priest, the Silent Word who pleads for our sins, and whose body will become, as you can read in John 2, His body becomes the New Temple of God. All of the intercession, prayer, sacrifice, and presence of God dwelling with His people, are fulfilled, perfected, and realized in Jesus. It is now, and forever that we find God’s mercy in Jesus.
And this means, that to seek God’s mercy for our sins, to seek God’s atonement for our sins, to seek God’s gracious presence for us, there is only one place to find it. In the person of Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Seeing the glory of God this Christmas, and every year that we recall the miracle of Jesus’ birth, there is more than enough profound mystery and joy to keep us pondering the depths of God’s love forever. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 4:2-7, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "The Lord is our Supreme Joy!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Though on Maui it might be a stretch—I want you to imagine two people huddled outside in the cold snow, perhaps under a dark shelter—but they are shivering, freezing. Then the sun breaks through the clouds with brilliant force, casting warm beams to the earth. But hidden under the shelter, the two are still frozen cold. Then one enters the sunlight, and suddenly feels the warmth soaking into all their body, face, fingertips, and toes. The other is still miserable, shivering cold in the dark. If the first simply says, “hey, quit shivering, just warm up!” but doesn’t bring them out into the sunshine, it does the person no good—they’ll still be frozen. Their words are empty sentiment. But if they’re brought into the warmth of the sunlight, they will immediately feel the chill and the cold fading away.

Another example. In James 2:14-17, James describes a faith without works. He says what if a person was hungry and lacking proper clothes, and you just said, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, but gave nothing they needed for the body—this would do them no good. Faith without works is dead. You need to actually feed or clothe them to do good.

I often wonder how you hear or even say those words in today’s reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!” Do you hear them like the person still huddled in the freezing dark, angry as though someone were mocking our suffering? Or like the hungry person who is told to be filled, but is given nothing to eat? In other words, are we encircled by some sorrow or suffering, so that we hear these words as being empty of comfort? Perhaps, but only if we miss the heart and center of words.  

You see, when St. Paul writes these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!”, the joy and comfort all flow from the Lord. The point is, the Lord is our Supreme Joy! To use our examples, Jesus is the radiant sunlight that dawns upon us, giving warmth and light, as we have long been in the cold darkness and winter of our sins. The prophet Malachi told of Jesus’ coming, that the “sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Joy comes from the radiant warmth and light of the Lord, and all His gifts. And to give someone joy, we must give them the Lord! To know joy ourselves, we must know the Lord! It’s not insignificant that Jesus also teaches us that we are the light of the world, and that our good deeds give glory to the Father. We transmit and reflect the light of Jesus when we show kindness and do good for others—showing His care, love, and forgiveness.

I included some extra verses in our reading from Philippians, to show that Paul understood that joy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, or only when life is all coasting along easily. Verse 2 Paul appeals for two Christian women to resolve their conflicts by agreeing in the Lord. This is followed by the command to rejoice in the Lord always, and a reminder to be reasonable to everyone. The thoughts are obviously linked, as being UNreasonable or stubborn, makes it almost impossible to resolve conflict. But sandwiched between is the command to rejoice. And joy is an honest result of people making amends—coming together by agreement in the Lord, and putting hurts, wrongs, and disagreements behind them. Conflict and division, especially in a church, are sure to rob us of joy—but seeking agreement in the Lord and finding unity, is a sure way to restore joy!

Paul gives one person specific instructions on this in verse 3. It may be the pastor or a significant leader in the Philippian church. Paul says, “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life”. There are many interesting things about this verse. Four times in the Greek, he use the prefix “with” on several words. He’s appealing for unity, based on “agreement in the Lord” from the verse before. The first word, translated “true companion” is more literally, “true yoke-fellow”. Paul is writing to a friend, who has labored alongside him in the gospel, like two oxen, or two cattle, pulling a yoke together. A yoke, if you don’t know, is a heavy wooden bar that rests over the back of an ox pulling a plow or cart. It symbolizes teamwork, combined effort, and that pulling in the same direction is the only way to get the job done! In their conflict, Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche, the two women, to “agree in the Lord”. This is their Christian duty, and it’s the way they’re going to “pull together in the same direction” and get the job done!

Paul calls his “yoke-fellow”, his trusted laborer, to come alongside them and help them do this. These women were precious to Paul also, as he remembers how each of them had previously labored side by side with him in the gospel. He knew their Christian character and heart from their service with him in the Gospel. He therefore knew that it was not impossible to overcome their conflict, but that they had to refocus on the Lord—agree in the Lord!—to overcome it. Isn’t that just like life in our Christian congregation, or among our Christian friends? How easy is it for little matters to separate, divide, create conflict or disagreement. It robs us of joy. But like Paul, we should know the heart and love for Christian service in our brothers and sisters, and seek to bring resolution, agreement in the Lord, wherever possible.

And certain of this outcome, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand”. Joy comes from the Lord. It comes from realigning our thoughts and hearts to His Word, His gracious will—which creates agreement, unity, the ability to work together and accomplish much for the gospel, and this is joy! The Lord is at hand, is a reminder not to delay. We also should not miss that this letter of joy that Paul penned to the Philippians, was written while he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel! Paul was no stranger to suffering, and he certainly doesn’t imagine that we can only know joy when life is all easy.

And of course, life is not easy for many. While we may celebrate Christmas in comfort and safety, there are people locally who are homeless or jobless. Internationally many are refugees from war, persecution, or famine this Christmas season. There are people whose families are not intact, or may have deep divisions. It’s well-known that for these and many other reasons, including health issues, that many people experience the “holiday blues.” Or might we better say, that we suffer under the “winter of our sins?” All the effects of sin, our own, and the sins of others, casts a frozen chill on life. But listen to these words of an ancient Easter hymn: “Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst His prison, and from three days’ sleep in death, as a sun has risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying, from His light to whom is giv’n laud and praise undying” (LSB 487:2).

Jesus is the radiant sun who shines down on our sin-darkened lives, frozen with the chill of our meanness, unreasonableness, selfishness, and coldness to each other. The joy that Paul knew, and that we’re invited to know, is “joy in the Lord.” His resurrection is the crowning victory over sin and death, and the warming light that thaws and chases away the long and dark winter of our sins. Where the light of Jesus Christ is shed, where the gifts of His Word, Truth, forgiveness and love are flowing down on us, there the warmth and joy of the Lord is spread and known. To call others to share in and experience that joy of the Lord, we must bring them to the radiant beams of His light. Or we must reflect that light of the Lord to them, by acts of goodness, kindness, and love, so that they are drawn into the light. The joy of the Lord is shining and giving us light, more surely than the rising of the sun each morning. To quote another scripture, written in the depths of darkness and grief, Lamentations, the prophet, saw suffering all around him, but remembers this hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23-23).

Since the Lord’s steadfast love never ceases, His mercies never end, we can rejoice in Him always. Later in the Philippians 4 Paul joins this theme of joy to contentment—in all circumstances, plenty or hunger, abundance or need—I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Joy and contentment are not about having everything we think we need, or being happy, healthy, and without problems—joy and contentment are seeing that the Lord, the Son of righteousness, is still shining in all His faithfulness and mercy. It is seeing that the Lord shines still in His resurrection victory that is the greatest victory of all. With sin, death, and the devil defeated, we can endure the lesser ups and downs, victories and defeats of this life, confident that all is not lost, but rather all has been gained in Christ Jesus. In fact, earlier in this same letter, Paul confesses, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” for then he would be with the Lord. The point of it is that the Christian has a unique and incomparable source of joy in the Lord, because the death and resurrection of Jesus means that whatever life brings, we have a “win-win” situation, because we have been forgiven and redeemed by the Lord. God’s Son is ever shining.

You can’t get warmed by hiding in the darkness, or staying in the cold. You must come into the sunshine of the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Come into the sunshine of the Lord’s gifts—receive His Word with joy, receive His coming this Christmas with joy, receive His forgiveness in body and blood with joy, because Jesus has redeemed us from all the winter of our sins! If the cold and chill of sorrows and sins still lingers, continue to come again and again into His gracious presence! Repeat as often as needed! And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Sermon Talking Points

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Listen at:

  1. In Philippians 4:2-7, Paul urges us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” When is it particularly difficult for us to rejoice, or find joy? Where is the joy Paul talks about centered or found?
  2. Read James 2:14-17. How does the Christian truly bless a person who is hungry or lacking clothes? In a parallel way, how does a Christian bless someone who is suffering or lacking joy? Where does it come from, and how can we help deliver it?
  3. What challenging situation was Paul addressing in Philippians 4:2-3? What makes conflicts especially hard to resolve (contrast to vs. 7)? What is the key for finding agreement? (vs. 2).
  4. How can we come alongside or help other Christians who may be stuck in a conflict or disagreement? Philippians 4:3. What shared experiences and affection moved Paul and his companion to work for this unity? How is joy a product of true unity in the Lord?
  5. Paul knew joy, even as he wrote the letter. Where was he writing from? What circumstances? Philippians 1:7. What troubles us or steals our joy?
  6. The Easter hymn “Come You Faithful, Raise the Strain” (LSB 487:2) contains this verse: Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst His prison, and from three days’ sleep in death, as a sun has risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying, from His light to whom is giv’n laud and praise undying. Explain what it means for us that Jesus has risen from death.
  7. Read Lamentations 3:19-24, especially vss. 22-23. How does he find hope in the midst of despair? Why do Christians face a “win-win situation” no matter what? Philippians 1:22.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-10, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Blessed to take no offense at Jesus"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Jesus and John the Baptist are talking through messengers in our reading. John, like many others in history, “played second fiddle” to someone more famous, namely Jesus. But John took pains to show that he was content with this role—he wasn’t seeking attention for himself. His proper focus was on elevating Jesus. As Jesus first publicly took the scene, John announced: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).
But even though John knew his secondary role—Jesus shows how great this role was. John was more than a prophet, he is the very messenger prophesied seven centuries earlier by Isaiah and four centuries earlier by Malachi. The one to “prepare the way of the Lord”. Just think that faithful Israelites had been anticipating John’s coming for 7 centuries! That’s more than twice the history of the USA! And by waiting for his coming, they were ultimately waiting for the Messiah whom he would announce. The prophecies showed that John would usher in the coming of the Lord. He’s the best man to Jesus, the groom.
But now to our reading…the “best man” John, is locked up in prison. And he’s anxious to know if he was really right about Jesus. When John baptized Him he proclaimed Jesus to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But now he’s sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?
What was behind John’s question? We can only guess—it could have been doubt—was he really right about Jesus’ identity? It could have been impatience or urgency—“I’m pretty sure you are the Messiah, but where is the kingdom you are bringing in”? Or it could have just been confusion—maybe he thought the kingdom would come with more judgment and more power? Whatever the trouble, we can understand John’s concern, because he was locked up in prison for preaching the good news, and for opposing the adulterous and incestuous union of the powerful Herod Antipas. To say John was in hot water would be a gross understatement. Not long after, John would be beheaded at the whim of Herodias. John must have been wondering, “Is this how the kingdom of God is going to come? Am I going to get out?”
Whatever doubts or uncertainty played on John’s mind, reappear later in the worries and concerns of Jesus’ other disciples. Right down to Peter’s abandonment of Jesus, or the disciples hiding in fear after His death and even Resurrection. Or the Emmaus disciples puzzling over how the kingdom of God, that seemed to be coming through Jesus, could go down in shame and death on the cross. In various ways, Jesus’ disciples took offense throughout His ministry. Why should Jesus’ kingdom be marked by such suffering and shame, and finally death? Wouldn’t more power be in order?
Outside of His circle of disciples, there was even harsher criticism of Jesus’ actions. Others were offended that Jesus would eat with sinners—associating at the homes of tax collectors, or welcoming prostitutes who sought to hear Him. Healing the sick and the lame on the Sabbath day of rest. Not only did He ignore the customs of the Pharisees, but He was even sharply critical of them! And finally, for the Gentiles, all non-Jewish foreigners like the Romans and Greeks, (or even us Americans!), the thought that Jesus would die on the cross, was utter foolishness and contempt. They could see nothing honorable in the most demeaning criminal’s death. From John’s yearning questions, to the skeptics who were most offended by Jesus, many were offended by Jesus’ coming, and didn’t know how to receive it.
Yes, when Jesus answered back to John’s messengers, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me”—these were and are tough words to swallow. Pundits and observers of Jesus’ kingdom felt they had plenty to criticize and dispute. Many scratched their heads or waved their hands in dismissal. And so it is today. Some find the greatest offense in Jesus’ words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” His exclusive claim of salvation. Others find the miracles, and especially the resurrection of Jesus impossible to believe. People still take offense at Jesus. But blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus. How do we receive His kingdom, and that blessing? How do we not take offense at Jesus? First we must hear and take His Word to heart.
Let’s rewind just a half sentence before Jesus’ blessing. Jesus says, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. This may be the most significant of the signs Jesus names, proving who He was. Who are these poor, and what good news was coming their way? It echoes Jesus’ opening words of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poor in spirit means to be humbled and empty before God. A complete dependence on Him. It’s to such people, poor in spirit, that Jesus brings the kingdom. Jesus’ good news comes to the poor. Jesus’ kingdom won’t find a place among the proud and scornful—among those who imagine they have spiritual riches of their own, and aren’t beggars awaiting God’s help. If we come before God puffed up with our own knowledge or pride, and think we don’t need to receive anything from God—the kingdom of Christ won’t come our way. Not until our lofty pride and presumption is brought low. Not until we set aside our offenses, and listen humbly to His Word. Not until we are poor in spirit, are we ready to have the good news preached to us.
On a purely practical level, that means we know and realize that we are sinners. Not just a generic “Oh well, nobody’s perfect”—but admitting that we have rebelled against God in thought, word, and deed. Realizing we aren’t dressed in fine robes of our good works, ready and presentable to God—but that we are dressed in the tattered and filthy rags of our sin—needing a bath and a change of clothes. John knew about this spiritual poverty—he prepped people for it—confessing their sins, stripping off those rags, and washing in the baptism of repentance and forgiveness. He helped them empty themselves of the pride of false works.
Jesus later made this command, that we Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you. Jesus prescribed that cleansing wash of baptism for all of us, that we’d all be washed and made clean. And St. Paul explains further that in baptism we are clothed with Christ, dressed newly in His righteousness. To get the kingdom, we have to be emptied of ourselves, to receive the fullness of Christ’s gifts—forgiveness, eternal life, the gifts of the Spirit, Jesus’ righteousness. To those humbled, those so emptied in spirit, who are not offended by Jesus—this good news is preached! The poor hear good news, and are blessed. The Gospel kingdom makes its way into poor hearts, and we begin to overflow with the spiritual richness and blessings of Jesus Christ.  
Even John, the great forerunner of Jesus, His “best man”, had to be reminded to humble himself and not take offense at Jesus’ kingdom as it came. Jesus’ kingdom came in lowliness and grace and suffering. But it also came with these proofs that He was the right One, the “Coming One” whom John correctly expected. Jesus told John, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus laid down a full hand of cards and more, that showed that John was right to expect Jesus as the promised Messiah. He correctly understood that the prophecies pointed to Jesus; his ministry had not been in vain. John must have felt reassured, even if his fate was still gloomy. Jesus’ miracles, and most of all His preaching the Good News, confirmed that God’s kingdom had truly come.
Jesus brings His kingdom to us that we might be blessed, and not for us to take offense. When we see His destination of the cross, nailed there for the forgiveness of sins, we must not be offended that we need a Savior from our sin, but rather be humbled and poor in spirit, to hear that Good News. God changes our hearts, He prepares His way in our heart, through preachers like John the Baptist, and through all the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross confronts us with that offense, what St. Paul calls a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles. But hidden in the cross of Christ is the mighty power and wisdom of God to save us. The earthly eye, the eye of our sinful flesh, can’t see it. But the Spirit of God teaches us these things. Jesus patiently taught them to troubled John, and He patiently teaches them to us.
In your heart, in my heart, there are certainly sinful obstacles to receiving Christ’s kingdom. It could be pride, or doubt, or anxiety. It might be unrest with the troubles and sufferings you endure in life, and wondering where Jesus is in it all. It could be distraction from hearing and listening to His Word—too occupied by the busyness and cares of life. Whatever the obstacles, this Advent season pray that God continue to clear His way into our hearts through faithfully hearing His Word, as our Lord comes our way. Listen with the poor, to the Good News preached by Jesus. Listen with John to the reminder, Blessed is the one who is not offended by me. The Lord Jesus is coming—this is His kingdom—hearts are made open to be blessed and receive His grace! Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen at:

  1. Read Matthew 5:3, the first Beatitude opening Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Read Matthew 11:2-6. How was Jesus bringing His kingdom to the “poor in spirit?”
  2. Read Isaiah 61:1. When John heard this verse quoted by Jesus, how might he have been encouraged? What might he have hoped to hear from Jesus, that is mentioned in the rest of the verse? What was he facing soon? Matthew 14:1-12; see also Matthew 5:10-12.
  3. John asks Jesus if He is “the coming one”. Who were the Old Testament believers expecting? Deuteronomy 18:15, 18. What signs of prophecy did He fulfill? Isaiah 29:18; 35:5-6; 61:1. In addition to those signs that were definitely prophesied, what additional miracles of Jesus were named here?
  4. What actions and words of Jesus’ life and ministry caused offense to some? Matthew 11:18-19; 12:9-14; 12:22-24, 33-37. What is the blessing in not being offended by Jesus’, but believing Him? Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
  5. How did Jesus’ actions convey that His first coming was to usher in a kingdom of grace, not judgement? At His second coming there will be judgment, but what promise do those who believe in Him have? John 3:16-21; 5:22-24.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sermon on Romans 15:4-13, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "The God of Endurance, Encouragement, and Hope"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. How is God, the 3 in 1, described for us in our reading from Romans today? What qualities or characteristics does it say God has? Today I especially want to look at these three qualities, that God is the God of endurance and encouragement and hope. But though we won’t get to all the qualities named in the reading, notice the other descriptions of God as well. Jesus became a servant, to show God’s truthfulness, and the Gentiles will praise God for His mercy.
Verses 4 and 5 show that the first three qualities of God—endurance, encouragement, and hope—are all reflected to us in the Bible, the Scriptures. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, but how would you ordinarily get to know the qualities of a person? Say you meet a new friend, the way you ordinarily get to know them is through personal interactions, time spent together (aka fellowship), and conversation. With more and more people using electronic communication, through phones and the internet, we sometimes miss out on the real face to face interactions. Something is lost from our conversation and understanding of each other. But what about knowing God?
Since God the Father is an eternal, unseen Spirit, we cannot see or interact with Him in the same way. But that certainly doesn’t mean God is unknowable, remote, or inaccessible God definitely and intentionally made Himself known to humanity, in order to save us from the folly of our sins. God has revealed or shown Himself to us in multiple ways. The two most important ways God are through His Word, the Holy Scriptures, and sending Jesus His Son, in the flesh. Many did meet Him face to face, and in personal fellowship and conversation, they got to know Jesus, the exact representation of the Father. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” So the people who lived and walked with Jesus knew Him in this way. But for the Old Testament generations before Jesus came, and for New Testament generations after, its primarily through God’s Word, the Bible, that we encounter and know Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you have a Bible that sits by your bedside. Perhaps on a coffee table, or on a shelf. The best-selling and most widely translated book in world, and yet also the least read. Or mostly. Do we ever think about His Word as the gateway through which we encounter and get to know the living God? And He tells us in Romans 15:4 that the Scriptures were “written in former days for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” The next verse says these very same qualities, endurance, encouragement, and hope, are God’s qualities. In other words, God has a very important message He wants us to read and to hear! He wants us to find His encouragement and hope in these pages!
Yet sometimes it remains an intimidating book. Sections or even whole books of the Bible, can be confusing or difficult to understand. Some may even be frightening, as we heard even in our Old Testament reading about God’s dread judgment against the wicked. But faithful Christians and teachers of the Bible who have gone before us, wisely remind us to keep on the path of learning, and pursue God’s wisdom. Hold difficult teachings with reverence and respect, so perhaps later on God may clarify them to you, but those precious jewels of comfort and instruction that you do understand, hold those dearly in your heart.
Scripture is truly a book of encouragement and hope if we are attentive to its whole message, and heed its warnings about our sin. And it is a message of endurance, encouragement and hope because it points us to Jesus, the Savior from our sin. The message of sin and grace that runs through all the Bible, reaches its climax and resolution in His death and resurrection for us. So if the Bible intimidates you, don’t worry—pick it up and read. A little each day. Use a study Bible or come to Bible class to explore your questions. Pray each time you read it, that God would give you humility and that He would open your mind and heart to hear His teaching. In these pages you will encounter the God of endurance, encouragement, and hope.
What does it mean for us that God is a God of endurance? Endurance reminds us of sports and athletic competition. A person doesn’t win a race or a sports competition if they can’t endure to the end. If you don’t finish a race, or have enough endurance to outlast the other team, you can’t win. The opposite of endurance might be quitting or giving up. “It’s too hard! I can’t go on! They’re too good; we’ll lose anyways.” These are all the voices of defeat and failure. Coaches urge, encourage, and sometimes even yell (!) at their players to endure, to keep up the fight, to overcome the obstacles and barriers, so that they get to the finish line, or compete to their fullest ability. The God of endurance gives His Scriptures to us so that we would not give up. That we would receive His strength to bear through the difficulties, obstacles, and barriers of life. That we wouldn’t give in to the voices of defeat, but hear His voice of victory.
Our struggle is to live and remain faithful to Jesus. To take up our cross and follow Him. Every one of us has their own crosses to bear—and while some of those may remain private and hidden from others, we also are not meant to suffer alone or in silence. God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ to bear one another’s burdens and to encourage each other. Just a few verses before our reading, in Romans 15:2, it says “let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” One of the key ways we care for each other in the Christian church is to build one another up. The Word of God gives us the instruction and encouragement to do it. God teaches us endurance: “we can do all things through Him who gives us strength”. We don’t race or struggle in a vain competition that can never be won or with no end in sight, but there is a finish line. God has promised eternal rewards and rest to those who finish the race by faith in Him.
And the God of encouragement speaks in special tenderness to those who are most crushed and broken in life. Jesus calls the weary and heavy laden to come and find rest for their souls. Scripture tells us that God doesn’t break the bruised reed or put out the dimly burning wick. When our faith is at its lowest ebb, God doesn’t extinguish it or crush it out, but nurtures our faith back into a lively trust. That we have a God of encouragement means that God is eager to speak to our deepest distresses and struggles; His Word brings living hope. There is no shortage of trouble and need around us. Luther wrote almost 500 years ago that everywhere we see a world that is filled to overflowing with suffering and need, and 500 years later, it’s much the same. But he goes on to describe how the Christian responds—we are to fight, work, and pray, and have heartfelt sympathy.
What does this mean? Just as God strengthens us and comforts us by His Word, He transforms us to do the same for others! 2 Corinthians also says this, that God’s comfort extends from us to others in their afflictions and sufferings. And we all share together in the sufferings of Christ. We face the troubles of the world not listening to voices of defeat and surrender, but with God’s voice of endurance, encouragement, and hope. God moves us to fight for the downtrodden and the voiceless, to work tirelessly to build others up and do good, and to pray that He would bless and expand our efforts beyond what we can see or do. God gives us endurance and resilience through the confidence that “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).
You see, knowing God and believing in Jesus, His Son, brings the God of endurance, encouragement and hope, right to us. Through His Holy Scriptures, these amazing qualities of God produce the same effects in our lives as well. And the last of those three qualities is hope. Hope is such a positive word, but one that can seem very wishy washy and weak in our everyday use. In ordinary English, hope doesn’t always mean much more to us than “wishful thinking” or “a hope and a prayer”—like hope is always some long shot possibility. But the Bible doesn’t use the word hope this way. Hope in the Bible is not wishy washy or weak, but more like the word “confidence.” Hope is not yet realized, it’s not something that we see. But it is something we wait for with confidence and certainty because God doesn’t break His promises. Romans 5 tells us that “hope does not put us to shame”. That’s because God is true to His Word—which He showed by sending Jesus (Romans 15:8), just as He promised. 
Hope rests upon this solid foundation: Jesus Christ. All other ground is sinking sand. Christian hope is a resilient, confident hope, closely linked to those other two qualities of endurance and encouragement. We can make it through the difficulties of life because Jesus has overcome the world through His cross and empty tomb. Hope needs a reason or object, and Christ is that reason. He’s the reason for the hope and joy of this Christmas season. God was sending His Son into the world to rescue us from sin and its ills. The Hope that God gives in Christ Jesus is sturdy and it is eternal. It gives us the reason to face life certain of what Jesus has done for us, certain that our sins are forgiven, certain that He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. So in the closing lines of our reading, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” His hope pours down upon us and overflows and increases! Have the joy of sharing that hope with others, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read through Romans 15:4-13. What are the qualities or characteristics of God listed in this passage? Verse 4 describes three or four things that the Scriptures or God’s Word does. What are they?
  2. What do we need endurance for? What is it? What is the opposite of endurance? Read 2 Corinthians 1:6; 6:4. What is our Christian endurance “up against?” In other words, what things do we have to endure?
  3. Why is it so comforting to know that God is the “God of endurance and encouragement”? What does this mean about His desire for us in struggles and difficulties? Does He care?
  4. How can God and His Scriptures bring us encouragement and hope? What is the good news that lifts us up through the hardships of this sin filled life? Why is Jesus central to that message of good news and hope?
  5. In everyday life, why might “hope” be treated like a weak word? How is hope understood in the Bible? Romans 5:3-5; Psalm 119:116. If hope “does not put us to shame” or “disappoint us” (NIV), what does that mean about the certainty of our hope in God’s promises?
  6. God’s work through His Word aims to produce certain qualities among us as Christians. Read Romans 15:5-7. What effect does God produce in our lives together according to these verses?
  7. How does Christ’s service to His people show God’s truthfulness and mercy? What promises had God made to the Jews, that were shown true in the servant life of Jesus?