Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sermon on Psalm 42, for Advent 1 Midweek, "Hope in God"

* We had a wonderful service of Evening Prayer, at which I preached this message, and we sang many beautiful variations of Psalm 42 and hymns inspired by it or echoing themes of it. Our sermon hymn was "As the Hart" by Dewey Westra, from the Genevan Psalter, and we also sang "When Peace Like a River" (It is Well with my Soul), and "The Night Will Soon Be Ending". I wish I had made a recording to share with you the beauty of the singing! Truly stirring, with rich words of Scripture as the foundation. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Advent is a season of waiting and hopefulness, symbolized by the blue that adorns the altar, as we long for our coming King. Perhaps it seems out of place to you that in a season of hope, I would choose such a seeming “downer” of a Psalm to open our series. But we’ll see that in the midst of all that darkness, the Psalmist still directs us to hope in God. Psalm 42 trembles and paces back and forth with deep emotion and some have even called this Psalm a description of “spiritual depression.” The subtitle and the author’s descriptions in the Psalm indicate he is one of the music leaders of the ancient Temple—the person who would lead the crowds of worshippers in celebration and music, leading them with glad shouts and songs of praise.
It was a joyful duty, but now he is utterly laid low. Shattered—dried up in soul but drenched in tears. The memories of joyous worship now seem bittersweet to him, and joy seems impossible. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? From the very deepest recesses of his being, there’s only a churning storm and aching sadness as he tosses and turns with sleepless nights, longing for some answer, some hope from God. And to make matters worse, his enemies pile on his misery, mocking: “Where is your God?” Under this heavy assault on his soul he feels like he is tumbling and pummeled helplessly under the waves breaking on the seashore. Anyone who has been caught in a strong shore break and been slammed down underwater and been completely disoriented, has had a taste of what the author means. This storm rages inside and outside his soul.
Why did I choose such a dark Psalm on the Advent of our Hope, as we embark on our journey of waiting for the Savior? For one, because dark times like these in life are common to almost everyone, even and especially around the holidays. Also from this Psalm we see how he is not “out of the woods yet” when he writes Psalm 42. For some people, depression can be just a dark episode after some loss in life, but for many others it can also be a long-lasting physical, mental, and spiritual battle. Whether those possibilities describe us—or may at some future point in life—there are dozens of Psalms of lament just like this one, that give expression to grief and sadness. They show us how to cry out to God in grief while still leaning firmly on the Lord and trusting Him for help, even when the end is not in sight. Relief is not always speedy; nor is it often “our way.” But we need not abandon faith. Rather, he twice asks and twice gives the answer: Psalm 42:5, 11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. While he cannot bring himself to joy at the present, he knows the day will come when he will again praise God, His salvation. So his hope rests in God to restore his joy.
Have you been in a dry and thirsty place in life? Has suffering ever felt as relentless and disorienting as the shore break? Have you ever cried out to God: Why have you forgotten me? Then together with the Psalmist, you need the words of Psalms like these, and the rich and even mournful melodies of hymnody and song, to be impressed upon your heart, so that together you may answer with the Psalmist: By day the Lord commands His steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. Psalms such as these help us pour out the sorrows of our heart to God, but not to lose hope or despair. Whether in physical or spiritual darkness, when we pray to God, we can sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to God. His song is with us, a prayer to the God of our life. As the hymn we’ll sing describes it—our prayer transcends distance, seeking the God of our existence. Prayer links us to God, and His Word richly supplies us with His promises and answers.
Probably many of you have had the experience of a consoling word of Scripture or a line of a song or hymn come rising out of your heart and memory, in a time of trouble or distress. If not, that’s all the more reason to immerse yourself in the word of God, that it might dwell in you richly. This is one of the ways the Holy Spirit ministers to our hearts, comforting us in times when our road is dark. But God knows the way, and His Word is a Lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.
So however deep the darkness becomes, it cannot overcome the light of Christ. However the waves and billows roar and pour over our troubled soul—God’s steadfast promise remains, and He is our rock, the God of our Life. Consider Christ praying this same Psalm, thirsting for God as He groans and dies on the cross; cheeks drenched in tears as He remembers the times of joyful worship in the Temple, but then filled with aching grief. But His hope in God was unshaken. He knew the day of praise and salvation in God would return. And from three day’s sleep in death, Jesus, God’s Son has risen! Psalm 42 captures the deep longing of the individual soul for salvation, and where is that hope and longing is met and fulfilled, but in Jesus Christ.

Probably few of us have ever experienced severe and life-threatening dehydration and that desperate thirst for life-giving water. But a deer panting for water is an image for us of the thirst of the soul, the deep inner thirst for God, the living God. God has made us all to be filled and satisfied by Him, and without Him we can experience a deep, life-threatening dehydration—a thirst for His life-giving water. And in our Gospel reading we heard Jesus say He is the very spring of living water. Come to Him and never grow thirsty! Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow streams of living water.’” By faith in Jesus, not only is our spiritual thirst satisfied, but we can also share Christ, the Living Water, with others! In Isaiah we hear God offering His refreshing waters and rich food to satisfy and nourish us, without money, and without cost. The answer to the hungry and thirsty soul is Jesus. The cost to us is free—it’s provided at God’s expense. The hope for the one who is cast down in soul, weighed down by depression, is Jesus Christ—Hope in Him, my salvation and my God. The way out of the darkness of sorrow is into the light of Christ. He is our soul’s desire, and the only person who can truly satisfy that thirst. Trust in Him and you will not thirst! In Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Parable of the Ten Virgins"

abbreviated sermon outline--for full sermon listen to the audio on

  • Last Sunday—waiting for Christ
  • Picture of long delay—so long all fall asleep. The delay of Christ impacts people differently. The faithful wait with joy and expectation while faithfully living out the callings their Master has given them. Use their talents, serve the fellow servants according to Master’s instructions, living in faith and love.
  • Others: mock and scoff at Christ’s promise to return—disbelieve, persecute the faithful. Others: neglect their talents, do nothing. Others: abuse fellow servants, and gifts of Master. Others: live immoral lives careless of His return. These are the category of those whom Jesus will tell “I never knew you”
  • Parable shows the wise and foolish. Does not seem to be speaking about unbelievers outside the church, because all ten are waiting for the Master’s return. Luther—the foolish are the hypocrites hidden in the church. What sets them apart?
  • Preparation. Both groups fall asleep during Christ’s delay. But wise are prepared. Difference is that wise have prepared oil in advance, foolish did not. Notice that oil is not something we possess in ourselves. One has to get it. Spiritually speaking, we cannot borrow someone else’s preparations, readiness for the kingdom, their faith, the spiritual gifts, etc. You can’t “mooch” off someone else, or ride in on “coattails.” You must be prepared yourself.
  • Temptation to procrastinate—always can prepare later, always something more important. Normally we don’t mock every day preparations—we consider it wise or even expected. Athletes train and prepare for their competitions; students prepare for their careers; workers prepare for their deadlines; people save for their retirement. And in all of these situations, those who don’t prepare are often caught off guard and don’t usually succeed as well as those who have prepared. We understand in daily life how there is always a so called “good excuse” to procrastinate on something until it’s too late—many of the same things compete for our attention and priorities, and prevent our preparation sleep, sports, work, learning, or even just laziness. But the warning of the parable is that there will be a time when it’s too late. Spiritually the danger is to devote our attention to preparing for earthly things, but not devoting our attention to prepare for Christ’s return. We assume that what we possess is enough to sustain us. But the door does shut, and no one gets in after closing time. To be ready to enter, we need to prepare.
  • Note again that the oil is something we don’t possess in ourselves, but have to get somewhere. What is it? Spiritually speaking, it has to point to the gifts of the Spirit—whether just faith, or all its attendant gifts. Clear that it’s available, but ignored by the foolish. How do we prepare then? Repent of our sins, trust in Jesus, and ask for His gifts, which He freely gives. He freely pours out His Spirit; freely increases our faith; freely forgives all those who cry, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is no reason or excuse for not having the gifts that Christ freely gives.
  • Wise and the foolish—theme in Proverbs—wise have the fear of the Lord—trust in Him and not in their own wisdom or strength. The wise are humble, open to correction and instruction. The foolish are stubborn, disobedient, proud, and self-destructive. Jesus will deny entrance to the foolish, those who do not accept the preparations for the kingdom that He freely gives.
  • But for the wise who enter the banquet, there is great joy. To be with in the celebration, to have lamps of faith burning brightly at His arrival, greeting Him gladly and being ready to enter. The joy all centers around Him. We are here today gathering with Christ’s freely given gifts. Today, Christ replenishes your oil for the wait till His return. Today He pours His forgiveness into the dry reservoirs of hearts that are weary. Today He renews you in the washing of water with the Word, as repentance and forgiveness calls you back to baptism. Today He renews in us the joy of the wait, as we remember the One who loves us. Today He increases your faith and your love by His Word, to make you wise for salvation. Today He joins you in a praying community who eagerly cries for His speedy return—Amen, Come Lord Jesus! Today He feeds you with His body and blood for the very foretaste of the feast to come—giving you the anticipation of the joy of His marriage feast. Be renewed, be restored, be watchful and ready! His delay is not slowness, but it is for the salvation of many, for God wants all to come to knowledge of the truth, and to reach repentance. Such a salvation is ours in Christ Jesus!
  • Reread  the closing words of our epistle: “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing”. In Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

Sermon on Psalm 95, for Thanksgiving Eve, "Come Into His Presence with Thanksgiving"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Psalm 95 is one of the most beloved Psalms in worship, and the first 7 verses are often called the “Venite”—Latin for the first words, “Oh Come!”. It’s an invitation to worship, and invitation to come before God with songs of praise and with thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving it’s especially worth reflecting on why we come into God’s presence with thanksgiving. The invitation Oh Come reminds us that our hearts are often far away from God, and rather than being near to Him and filled with thanksgiving and song, our hearts are often filled instead with grumbling, ungratefulness, worry, fear, or anything else that might keep our hearts from true thankfulness. The Psalm actually recalls the time when the Israelites grumbled and complained against God—doubting that He would give them water to drink—so shortly after He had miraculously fed them with the manna—bread from heaven. The Psalm refers to the places where this happened: Massah and Meribah—meaning “dispute” and “testing”. It’s a reminder not to fall back into the grumbling and disobedience of the Israelites, that made God withhold the promised land from them for 40 years. So instead of following their example, and going astray in our hearts, the invitation of the Psalm to us and to all, is to come into God’s presence with worship and thanksgiving.
If you paid close attention, or tried to notice all the times that the words “thanks” “thankful” and “thanksgiving” show up in our worship liturgy, songs, and prayers—you might lose track. The worship service is “hardwired” with thanksgiving to train us by repetition in the habit of giving thanks, so that whenever we come into God’s presence, we come with hearts made thankful. As we heard today in school chapel, thankfulness is an attitude, about how we look at things. It’s a recognition that all good gifts from God, and the perspective that there’s always something to be thankful for, even when life is really hard. If we spend our life in regular worship, we will continually be invited into God’s presence with thanksgiving, and like children being taught to “say thanks”, we will also continually have the words formed on our lips and repeated to us, so that we too remember to have thankful hearts.
And thankful hearts express themselves with such joy! Oh Come let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our Salvation! Children are often the best at making a joyful noise to the Lord, and singing with all their hearts—yet they too need to be taught to do so. Adults may know how to sing, but need a little more encouragement to let it be a joyful noise, instead of a low mumble. I like to tell you all that even if you are shy about how you sound when you sing—do not be afraid! Make a joyful noise to the Lord! We’re not here to criticize each other’s singing, but to lift up each other’s voices in glad song together to God! Believe it or not, it’s actually harder to sing well while singing softly than it is to sing well at full volume. The extra air in your pipes helps you hit the notes better! But the point is that God delights in our praise, and it is the expression of our thanksgiving to Him.
The next invitations in the Psalm direct us to how we should worship: Oh come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker! God commands a posture of humility and reverence before Him. God is not a jokester or our “buddy” but He is the great God and a great King, above all gods. He is God upon the throne of heaven. While it’s increasingly out of tradition to show respect and deference around our earthly leaders, it should never change that we show respect and humility before our Great God and King. God does not favor the arrogant or boastful, or let them stand in His presence. Rather, He puts down the mighty.
And coming into His presence we should most certainly be filled with joy and thanksgiving. Many people in this day and age let their hopes ride high or sink low with whomever is president of the nation, and thinking that our hopes for a good life in America are closely bound up with whoever is in power. But as Luther says, we should love, trust, and rejoice instead in God, our Great King above all gods. Psalm 146:3 says “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” Jesus is both the Great God above all gods, but also our Great King who rules over His kingdom on earth, and He is not just a fleeting hope for this good life, but He is the very essence of God’s promise to give eternal life, hope, and forgiveness to us. Furthermore, all earthly powers are subject to Him, not the other way around.
When I was a kid I marveled at basketball players whose hands were big enough to palm a regulation basketball. The control that gave them over the ball. What does our Psalm say? God palms the earth and the mountains! Who’s in control? In His hands are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is His for He made it, and His hands formed the dry land. God’s got great hands, both to handle whatever situations we face, or to control the world, when we fear that it’s spinning out of control, or bouncing out of bounds. God has revealed His game plan to us, He’s already run up the score and won the game, and now we’re in from the bench to play alongside Him. From the hands that made creation to the hands that were pierced on the cross for our sins, God’s got His loving arms wrapped around us that will carry us through every joy and sorrow, even laying our loved ones in the grave. All creation is in the palm of His hand.
Finally, God is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. God has pastured us—fed us, clothed us, kept us in safety. All the more reason to come into His presence with Thanksgiving. This time of year is traditionally a time for us to renew and remember all the blessings for which we are thankful. But this truly should be a daily exercise, not just a yearly exercise. But consider all the ways in which God has kept you in safe pasture and leads you beside the quiet waters. It does not mean a life absent turmoil, just as Jesus’ salvation was not absent His cross. But it does mean a table spread before us in the presence of our enemies, and an overflowing cup of blessing. In the times of blessing and times of loss in this life—God truly knows how to guard and care for His beloved sheep. The sheep of His hand. The same hand that palms the mountains and the ocean depths, palms His precious sheep. Children of God, loved by a great and Good Shepherd.
We know what this Good Shepherd does for those whom He loves—He lays down His life for them. Once again, all the more reason to come into God’s presence with thanksgiving. It’s a habit that will increase our joy, as it increases our knowledge and self-reflection as to how all good things truly come from His hand. Rejoice, give thanks and sing! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Exodus 17:1–7 (ESV)
1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Hebrews 4:1–13 (ESV)
1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’ ” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Sermon on Proverbs 8:11-22, for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, "The Wisdom of God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we are going to dive into probably the most interesting chapter in the whole book of Proverbs, both in this sermon and also in the Bible study hour. You’ve heard that Jesus teaches that all of the Bible points to Him (John 5, Luke 24). But what that means or how certain books point to Jesus is not always so easy to figure out. Proverbs appears at first to be a long list of mostly disconnected wisdom sayings. As we’re learning in our Bible study on Proverbs, that’s a major over-simplification. But you’ll have to join us for study to see why! But Proverbs 8 is so important, because early Christians immediately recognized that it was pointing to Jesus. The connection comes out rather clearly when you’ve read the whole New Testament carefully. An extensive web of Bible verses join the idea of Wisdom to Christ—including things Jesus Himself said.
The connection from Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8, to Jesus Christ being that very Wisdom of God, might not have jumped out at the original readers, before Christ came, but as they say, “hindsight is 20/20.” New Testament has dozens of arrows pointing back to show us clearly that Christ is the Wisdom of God, this master craftsman described in Proverbs 8, who is with God and works with God in creation. Jesus refers to Himself as wisdom on several occasions. In one place He recalls how the Queen of Sheba traveled great distances to hear the wisdom of Solomon (who wrote Proverbs), and He says now something greater than Solomon is here (Matt. 12:42). He also spoke of the “Wisdom of God” as the person who sends God’s prophets and apostles (Luke 11:49). And St. Paul writes at length in 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 about wisdom and foolishness, and at least twice He calls Jesus the “Wisdom of God.”
Read in this light, Proverbs as a whole, and chapter 8 in particular, open up in a whole new light. Wisdom is more than just an assembly of abstract, wise sayings, but all of God’s goodness and knowledge and instruction wrapped up into the very person of His Son Jesus. Without this spiritual knowledge of Jesus, there is a sort of dim or even blind grasping towards God and towards wisdom, that is possible. Wisdom, in that lesser sense, includes general knowledge of right living, good choices, wise decisions, thoughtful problem solving, and living daily life with justice and virtue. These are all small “w” examples of wisdom. Even apart from Jesus, some people discover that this is the way God has ordered life in the world, and if we act by wisdom, we will often see the blessing and reward of it. Luther commented that unbelievers have reason and wisdom and use their willpower to achieve an honorable and decent life—even sometimes allowing their evil desires be controlled by civil laws (Siegbert Becker, The Foolishness of God, p. 58). This much—the basics of good government and a relatively peaceful life, are possible for all humans, regardless of their belief in God—provided that they order their lives by wisdom. God has woven wisdom into the fabric of life, which is apparent in the book of Proverbs—and people can more or less discover most of these truths through experience and observation, with some effort. But none of that leads to salvation, or the big “W” of Wisdom.
This is why Proverbs 8 explains that good and just government is a product of wisdom and wise kings, princes, and rulers. It’s why riches and honor are also given to the wise. Good choices in life; good decisions—more often than not—will lead to good outcomes for us. Early in chapter 8, Wisdom calls out an invitation for all of the children of man to learn from her instruction. All are invited to hear and benefit from God’s wisdom. Anyone who desires it, will not be turned away—but those who despise God’s wisdom foolishly injure themselves. Most people read Proverbs for this small “w”, earthly, practical wisdom—which is certainly there. But Proverbs 8, and the New Testament, point us to a higher, nobler gift that Wisdom has to give. The hymn “One Thing’s Needful” sums it up well: “Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure, Jesus, is revealed in You. Let me find in You my pleasure and my wayward will subdue. Humility there and simplicity reigning, in paths of true wisdom my steps ever training. If I learn from Jesus this knowledge divine, the blessing of heavenly wisdom is mine.” The highest noblest treasure of Wisdom is Jesus Christ Himself. He is Wisdom with the big “W”.
When Proverbs 8 says that wisdom is better than jewels, or that wisdom gives enduring wealth and righteousness, we are reminded that Jesus taught us not to store up treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven, that cannot be destroyed. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. He is Wisdom—better than gold or jewels—our lasting wealth and righteousness. When Proverbs 8 says that wisdom walks in the way of righteousness and in the paths of justice, we remember how Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that He brought justice to victory, by His cross and empty tomb. When Proverbs 8 reminds us that wisdom gives an inheritance to those who love wisdom, and fills their treasuries, we are reminded from the New Testament how inheritance is completely a “grace word”—describing the salvation gifts that God generously and freely pours out on us through Jesus Christ. Not something we deserve or earn, but Jesus’ graciously wills the treasures of salvation to us, through His last will and testament, sealed by His death. And when Proverbs 8 says of Wisdom, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old,” it’s pointing to the Wisdom of God being intimately involved in the very act of creation, just like we hear in the opening verses of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3).
So while some may pursue small ‘w’ wisdom on an earthly level, to understand how to navigate life better, how to avoid the pitfalls of life and handle difficult situations—Proverbs 8 takes  us far deeper in pursuit of big “W” Wisdom, that leads directly to Jesus Christ. It points us to the Wisdom of God that is in Christ Jesus—“who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). In other words, the whole spiritual life is wrapped up in Him. He is the final destination of a true pursuit of Wisdom. He is “Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure.”
And here we come to a place where earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom diverge and depart. Paul knew that the Greeks loved and pursued wisdom. The word “philosophy” means “loves wisdom” in Greek. But in the same chapter where Paul calls Jesus the Wisdom of God, he also says that the cross of Jesus Christ is foolishness to the Greeks. It seems absolute folly to the unbelieving world, that the innocent Son of God should die a lowly and despised death on the cross, a criminal’s death, and that this cross should be the power of God for the salvation of the world. Reason can’t comprehend it. It defies human wisdom. But God was pleased to humble men’s wisdom in just this way, through the cross of Jesus Christ. Because God wanted to empty all human power from the equation of salvation, so that everything depends entirely on Him. This was God’s wisdom, so that all the credit should go to Him, and that we would not find any reason to boast in ourselves. So not only is Jesus “Wisdom’s, highest, noblest treasure”—but the wisdom of God’s ways at His cross put the world’s wisdom to foolishness.
We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to connections between Proverbs 8 and Jesus, and the whole New Testament, but another really cool connection actually comes from within the Old Testament itself. In Proverbs 8, there are six related qualities, attributes, or facets that are described: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Might, Knowledge, and Fear of the Lord. Fascinating, that these same 6 qualities are named in Isaiah 11:1-2—the prophecy of Jesus as the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” who has the Spirit of the Lord resting upon Him: “The Spirit of Wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The same facets of the diamond of wisdom are the identical facets of the Spirit of the Lord, that rests upon the promised Messiah, Jesus! I know it can be dizzying following all the lines and traces, but I hope you grasp how significant this passage is, and see just a few of the intersecting spider web-like connections that crisscross this reading.
God grant us His Spirit of understanding to see how His world is woven together by wisdom, and not just an impersonal force or random head knowledge, but Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure is Jesus, who trains our footsteps to walk in self-control, humility, and simplicity. God grants us His Spirit of understanding to see the awesome Wisdom of God that is woven so beautifully into all creation—from the unspeakable grandeur of the widest expanses of the stars and universe, down to the mind-boggling marvel and microscopic world of the cell, and life at the miniature level. Everywhere across the earth are scattered God’s fingerprints, the signs of His Wisdom, even when we also recognize how badly the creation is groaning and suffering under the weight of sin and death.
When we see God’s creation with the delight of Wisdom, we can understand why Proverbs 8 talks about God working with delight in Wisdom, His master workman—God delighting in the work of His Son Jesus. God rejoices in Jesus, the Wisdom of God, and He rejoices in the work of His hands—this creation, and most especially the children of man—us! From God’s delight in us—from His love for us—we understand why God in His Wisdom, came into the disordered and broken world, a work of art tattered and vandalized by the malicious and the foolish alike. And He delighted to enter the “mess” and begin to reorder, reorganize, to repair and to heal. And He sent Jesus, His master workman, His Wisdom, to do this—to retrieve and restore us and all of creation to Himself. It took a plan reaching far beyond the wisdom and insight of men to resolve this problem of sin in the world, but God in His eternal Wisdom knew just what was best. He did not spare Himself the great and enormous cost of that plan, but willingly paid the price on the cross, so that we could be forever His. And the joy of our redemption propelled Him forward even through the horrors of the cross. And till that day He comes to take us home, He is ever sending out and working in and restoring all throughout His creation, the lives of the broken, the hearts of the wayward and foolish, the minds of the simple. Still today the Wisdom of God calls to all the children of man—come, receive my highest, noblest treasure! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Proverbs 8:12, the poem about Wisdom shifts to Wisdom speaking in the first person “I”, as a personal being. How does this agree with the NT understanding of who is the “Wisdom of God”? 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30; Luke 11:49.
2.      Read Isaiah 11:1-2 carefully. List the seven attributes of the Spirit in verse 2. Find them in Proverbs 8:12-14. Who is it that both passages are describing?
3.      What things does wisdom despise? Why must we also despise these things? Romans 12:9. What other things do those who love wisdom also love, and find as a result of loving wisdom? Proverbs 8:13-21. How are these treasures both earthly and present but even more heavenly and eternal? Matthew 6:19-21.
4.      What flows from those who practice wisdom in government? Proverbs 8:15-16. Who establishes government? Romans 13:1-4; but see also Isaiah 11:3-5 and 9:6-7. How is Christ’s rule still greater, but reflects some of the same positive qualities?

5.      Proverbs 8:22 was the center of a controversy in the early church, over the eternity of Christ and His shared divinity with the Father, based on an imprecise Greek translation of this verse. Nevertheless, the orthodox teachers of the faith correctly understood this verse within the total unity of the Scriptures, and rightly affirmed Jesus is eternally God, and as Prov. 8:22 describes, was co-creator with God of all things. How do John 1:1, 18; Colossians 1:15; 2:2-3; and Ephesians 3:8-10 all echo and confirm this truth? 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35, for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity (1 YR), "Forgive as God Forgives You"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today Peter addresses Jesus on the question of forgiveness, and seems to be testing the upper limits of what God expects or requires of our forgiveness. Shall I forgive my brother 7 times? From the perspective of our sinful flesh, 7 times seems pretty generous and patient. But Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven”. There is disagreement about how it’s translated. But whether 77 or 490 times, Jesus’ point is clear—don’t keep score of the sins committed against you, and don’t seek for an upper limit of forgiveness. Do not keep track, but forgive generously and without limit, as God has done for you. Jesus then tells a parable of forgiveness that begins with the debt a person owes, amounting in what today would be hundreds of millions or billions of dollars—or perhaps the equivalent of a couple hundred thousand years of work, at a laborer’s wage. Jesus shows the enormous generosity of God’s forgiveness. But the end of the parable makes clear that not all keep their forgiveness. Some forsake that forgiveness by refusing it to others.
First of all, we have to acknowledge the Biblical truth, that if we kept records of sin; really, if God kept a record of sin, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3). The answer is none could stand. Next, just like the servant whose debt was canceled, we have an enormous, unpayable sin debt to God. We have no means or method to repay it. The OT reading asks this same question. Wondering as the cost spirals upward, could God be satisfied by my offerings? By a thousand sacrificed rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? My firstborn child? When even an unthinkable price is not sufficient, he answers, God requires this: “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8). But the prophet Micah realizes we cannot pay even that cost on our own, as we have each sinned against God. He finally puts his hope in God’s mercy alone, saying at the end of his book: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression…you will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea?” (Mic. 7:18-19). We have no means to repay our sin debt, but God is unsurpassed in His mercy and forgiveness to us.
So it is a first and foundational principle of forgiveness, that we receive it undeservingly from our merciful God. Just like the first servant in the parable, we would be doomed if God did not cancel our debt. We notice, as I mentioned in last week’s sermon, that God does not renegotiate a payment plan with lower monthly payments, but wipes out this man’s debt entirely. Salvation is not a cooperative payback schedule for our sins, it’s Jesus’ total payment of our sin debt before God. He paid the costly price of His precious, innocent blood, and His holy death on the cross. We don’t “chip in” on the cost, or “earn our share.” All credit and glory belongs to Him. But a marvelous transformation in us is intended. The rest of the parable shows what went badly wrong, when the servant received forgiveness from God, but rejected the second essential principle of forgiveness—that as God has forgiven us, we are to forgive others.
Instead of being filled with joy and generosity at his unimaginable, newfound freedom, and spreading that generosity to others, he immediately and vindictively chased after his fellow servant and hounded him for the small debt he owed him. If ten thousand talents represents hundreds of thousands of years of labor, the 100 denarii owed by the second servant, amounts to about 5-6 months of labor. In the parable, this represents the sin debts that other owe us, in comparison to what we owed to God. Yet he mercilessly pursued this servant for the debt, and threw him into jail, pursuing his neighbor’s harm and destruction, when he had just narrowly escaped his own destruction, by the mercy of the Lord. God will not tolerate such a gross violation of His mercy and forgiveness. Such a terrible contradiction to the mercy that He showed first. The two principles of forgiveness—that we are first forgiven by God, and that we must also forgive others—are inseparably tied together. Hearing what happened, the Lord throws the unforgiving servant back in prison, revoking his freedom because he showed no mercy.
It’s a frightening thought for us—but it should not be unsurprising in the least, that God would not look kindly on us abusing His mercy by taking it for ourselves then mercilessly refusing it to others. Hell is real, and none of us wants to suffer there, so we must heed Jesus’ words with all seriousness, and if there is ever un-forgiveness harbored in our hearts, we must earnestly pray and attack it with all the weapons of the Spirit. We must pray and wrestle so that the devil’s stronghold is destroyed, and Jesus may truly work in our hearts, so we forgive our brother from our heart. This power to forgive truly comes from God’s forgiveness to us, and we must repent of our sins, and repent of any un-forgiveness, so that we may truly forgive others.
This raises one of the most difficult questions about forgiveness, that seemed to be on Peter’s mind when he was testing the upper limits of forgiveness. It seems unbearable (to our sinful human flesh) to continually bear with injustice. We feel like forgiveness should cut short after we have taken “so much.” Hatred and bitterness and desire for revenge all spring from injustices done against us—but it is only through forgiveness that these binding chains from sin are broken and we are released. The late Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey talks about several aspects of living out forgiveness. First, that unless we forgive each other and seek God’s forgiveness, we won’t be able to live together as a community. We daily need to pray for God’s forgiveness to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and be restored in the joy of our salvation. Bailey explains that many reject or scoff at the idea of forgiveness, because it seems to say “Never mind” or “Injustice can continue, it doesn’t really matter. We are willing to ignore injustice to ourselves or others.” But this is not  what Biblical forgiveness means.
First of all, forgiveness is not the brushing off of sin, but the acknowledgement of a real offense, hurt, or injury, and to forgive it nonetheless. Secondly, we can both forgive, and struggle for justice. Fighting injustice is part and parcel of the godly walk. We are not required to let injustice go unchecked and continue. Remember our verse from Micah? What does God require? “To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” Bailey goes on to say, “The world despises this theology because it thinks anger is necessary to fuel the struggle for justice, and that forgiveness will dissipate that anger. The Christian disagrees and replies, ‘No. I will forgive and I will struggle for justice. I may still be angry, but my struggle for justice will be purified by forgiveness and thereby become more effective” (Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 127).  The Christian does both, forgives and fights against injustice.
Bailey points us to how Jesus forgave, even when His tormentors made no confession of their guilt. Even when the wrongdoing was huge, He forgave. Jesus is the living example of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgives us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is nothing less than Divine Love, and God’s Divine Love is freely given out to us, as He has objectively cancelled our debts at the cross. That Divine Love of forgiveness is freely given to us, to forgive those who sin against us, even when the wrongdoing is huge. Raw and fresh in our memory is the horrible, evil act of last Sunday, the shooting at the Texas church. We as Christians can say that we forgive, but we will also struggle for justice, and let that struggle be purified by forgiveness. God’s forgiveness keeps us from descending into hatred and adopting the very forms of evil we despise.
The famous Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought against real and brutal racism and injustice in South Africa shares some of his own thoughts on forgiveness. He reflects that it’s not just a kindness you do to someone else, but also the best form of self-interest, as forgiveness helps you heal from being consumed by hatred and anger, which almost chains you to the perpetrator of the sin. Forgiveness allows you to move on and become a better person, and can even help the perpetrator do so, if they acknowledge their wrong and participate in the forgiveness. He shares the moving story of a young girl from South Africa whose four family members had all been brutally murdered by the police. She was asked: “would you be able to forgive the people who did this to you and your family? She answered, ‘We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive.’” Tutu said that in the beauty of her forgiveness she retained her humanity against all attempts to treat her as less than human.
In a world that swirls with so much anger, violence, and unforgiveness—in a world where many angry voices shout that we must fight injustice without forgiveness—we as Christians can take up the incredible and mighty calling of God to forgive others as God has forgiven us in Christ Jesus. Not because it’s easy, not because the weight of sin is not crushing and sometimes crippling, but because Jesus lifted that crushing weight, He bore it on His cross, and He buries it in His grave. Because through Jesus’ forgiveness He heals what is crushed and crippled, and makes alive. Jesus buries evil with a force that even death cannot overcome, as He shattered the grave in victory. Even when murderers take the life of innocents; whether in churches or on the streets; death cannot shatter the power of Jesus’ forgiveness and His Risen Life. He will give life again to all those innocent saints at First Baptist Church.
Evil and death cannot overpower the Divine Love of forgiveness that Jesus pours out on us without limit, and enables us to forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart—yes even to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus’ forgiveness washes over us by water and His Word, purifying us of anger, hatred, and bitterness, and steeling us to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. With His forgiveness, we are able to pursue justice through doing what is good, upright, and noble—not by repaying evil with evil. And as long as this sinful world lasts, we will need that daily prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen! So be it, in Jesus’ Name.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Peter asked Jesus if it was generous to forgive his brother ___ times. Jesus answered to forgive him ____ times ____. Did Jesus mean for him to keep track? What is the problem if we keep track of sins? Psalm 130:3.
2.      In Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, who does the king or lord represent? Matthew 18:35. Who do the servants represent? What does the debt that they owed to the king represent between us and God?
3.      Why could we never repay the debt of our sin? Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 51:3-4. Note: salvation is not a “repayment plan” but the total cancellation of debt.
4.      God cancels the impossible debt because God is _____. The servant then imprisons his fellow servant, who owes him the small debt, because the first servant is ______. How are these two qualities completely contradictory? What quality are forgiven believers to show toward others instead? Matt. 18:33
5.      What fearful punishment awaited the servant who would not forgive? Matthew 18:34. How are we made able to forgive others from our heart? Matthew 18:35; Ephesians 4:32.

6.      What was the cost for Jesus to pay our debt of sin before God? 1 Peter 1:18-19. Was this cost great or small? But how much does it cost us? 

Monday, November 06, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 5:5, for All Saints' Day, "Blessed are the Meek"

·         Some months ago—mentioned “doorway and exit” to the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are the “doorway” to understanding Jesus’ teaching in the sermon.  
·         9 Beatitudes. Simple structure: Blessed are_____, and how they will be blessed. 1st & 8th form bookends: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Only repeated blessing, and only present tense—theirs is. All other blessings are future tense—they shall… What does this mean? Kingdom of heaven delivers both present and future blessings. “Now but not yet” of Jesus’ blessings. Final note: first 8 are “they” (3rd person), but the 9th switches to “blessed are you”. Who are these blessed ones? They are you, the church: believers in Jesus.
·         The Beatitudes, give us Christ-colored glasses, not rose-colored glasses; to see our own life in light of Jesus Christ and who He is, and what He has done for us. Today, focus on Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Like all the beatitudes, there is a description of who are blessed by God—in this case the meek—and what blessing God promises—they shall inherit the earth. First of all, what does it mean to be meek? Secondly, how was Christ meek, and finally, how are we to be meek?
·         Quick word search finds passages that show what meekness is. Translated variously as “lowly, afflicted, poor, humble, or gentle.” As Pastor Fricke has put it well before: “meekness is not weakness.” Some may hear “Blessed are the meek” and think it means being timid, or not being assertive. But the scripture doesn’t praise these; telling us instead in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-control”. So meekness is not fearfulness or cowardliness. Assertiveness can be a good or a bad thing. It can be bad if it’s pushy and self-promoting. It can be good if it is humble and wise leadership without self-promotion. Numbers 12:3 describes Moses this way. He was very meek, more than any other on earth. The context was about the jealousy of his brother and sister grumbling over God speaking to Moses—but Moses did not defend himself against the accusation, but God did. Moses was no self-promoter, but lead well.
·         As a Bible dictionary sums it up, Moses kept his strength of leadership, while accepting personal insults and injury “without resentment or recrimination.” Resentment and vindictiveness might be selfishly satisfying, but they do nothing to strengthen our leadership. How much more so for Jesus, who graciously endured suffering and death on the cross, all for doing good, and did not sin by opening His mouth in cursing or anger in return. He bore it all patiently and committed Himself to God’s justice. (1 Peter 3:18-25). This is the very picture of meekness for us. To be Christ-like in meekness is not to be weak, but to be strong in self-control, not to lash back against those who hurt, hate, or lie against us. It is to bear with injury, and not to repay evil with evil, but to trust God to bring the final outcome to justice, as Jesus did. The command that Jesus held, even from the cross, awed even His enemies and the Romans.  And His meekness is seen, not just in His restraint, but positively in the gentleness and love with which He forgave His enemies.
·         Of course, that a Christian bears with insult or injury doesn’t mean they can never use lawful and just means to defend themselves against evildoers. St. Paul famously appealed to his Roman citizenship, and ultimately to Caesar, on more than one occasion, to right an injustice. Even Jesus told Pilate that his authority was subservient to a greater authority.
·         How do we respond when someone injures us with an insult or slander? Do we bear it in a Christ-like manner, or do we rage and thirst for retaliation? Proverbs 12:16 says, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.” Or Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” So meekness has restraint, or self-control, which is actually a form of strength, not weakness. The devil loves to bend it till it breaks, and sorely test that meekness. While it’s never as bad for us as for Christ, it still takes great self-control to be gentle or meek under great stress or pressure. Not just biting our tongue, but to respond with grace and gentleness.
·         So while meekness sometimes reads as “humble” or “gentle”, a quality to cultivate and practice; there are also many places, especially in the OT where the word reads as “lowly, afflicted, or poor.” In those passages, it’s the status or condition of a person who is objectively suffering or needs deliverance. Meek or afflicted, is often, but not always, parallel to being poor. Psalm 9:18 18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor (meek) shall not perish forever. Psalm 22:26 26 The afflicted (meek) shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! Psalm 147:6 The Lord lifts up the humble (meek); he casts the wicked to the ground.
·         Understanding the meek as those who suffer or need deliverance, brings, “Blessed are the meek” very close to the first beatitude, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” In fact, both echo a key passage in Isaiah 61:1-7, which Jesus quotes of Himself: vs. 1 “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound”. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, the downtrodden and suffering. Meek, poor in spirit, or lowly—who long for God’s deliverance—they are blessed! Isaiah 61:7 also says these who receive Jesus’ kingdom blessings will inherit a double portion of the land, and be filled with everlasting joy. It leads us to the blessing for the meek: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
·         Psalm 37 says almost the same thing: that “the meek shall inherit the land”—but listen also to the surrounding verses. It’s another picture of self-control. Here it’s against the anger and frustration of seeing wicked or evil men seemingly triumphing over the good, or getting away with evil. Psalm 37:8–11  Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. 10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. 11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.  It emphasizes waiting on the Lord, and that the meek who inherit the land will have abundant peace. The hearts of those who suffer, who are objectively poor, afflicted, and lowly, long for that abundant peace. God says to be patient and wait for it, and it will be ours!
·         Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. It’s a future promise, but it’s also a very physical one. Did you notice that? Some (without knowing the Bible) think that heaven is an airy, thin, insubstantial place, where ghostly spirits wisp around through the clouds. But “they shall inherit the earth.First, and briefly, remember that “inherit” is a grace word, not an “I earned it” word. Inherit speaks of God’s generous gifting to us. But what does it mean to inherit the earth? In the prophet Isaiah, God says: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). This verse describes the future of the new creation, where there will be no more futility or sin or conflict. It’s quoted twice in the New Testament, once at the end of Revelation, describing when God completes that future renewal of creation. The second quote, is 2 Peter 3:13, that after Jesus returns and this old creation is judged and destroyed, “According to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”
·         So blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth describes God’s promise of grace—that in the new heavens and new earth, the meek, the righteous, will possess the earth. The land will be yours. The Jewish people had a deep and profound connection to and longing for the physical land of Israel. It can probably be compared in some ways to the longing among many Hawaiian people for the land. I don’t know that the longing for land is a universal human desire; but I do think we all can identify with desiring a physical haven, a place where we can dwell in peace, without interference or enemies. People long to live without the futility of labor, or the greed and violence of wicked men, or all the things that frustrate the meek and the righteous. It takes us back to that Psalm, 37:11, “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” This becomes Jesus’ promise to us—there is a day coming, when the injustices and wickedness of this life will be over, and the land will be ours, in abundant peace. What an inheritance!
·         And all of it is owed to the Savior Jesus, who describes Himself as meek and lowly in heart: Matthew 11:28–30 (KJV)  “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Follow our meek and lowly Savior, who was afflicted for us, who suffered and died for us, that we should find rest for our souls, delight ourselves in His abundant peace, and inherit the new earth where righteousness dwells. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
·         Let us pray: “Meek and lowly Jesus, we confess to you our sinful boasting and self-promotion, our anger and retaliation when others wound us, and other sins against you and our neighbor. Take the heavy yoke of our sin, which you have born to your cross, and forgive us our sins. Grant us your meekness and teach us self-restraint, that we may flourish on this earth, and one day inherit the new heavens and new earth that you have prepared as the home for those who are righteous by faith in you. In your Most Holy Name, Amen.”

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Matthew 5:1-12 contains 9 Beatitudes. How do the 1st (v. 3) and 8th (v. 10) form “bookends” to the set? When the 9th switches to the 2nd person: “YOU”; how does this affect the hearer?
2.      How are the beatitudes like “Christ-colored” glasses for the Christian life?
3.      Read Matthew 5:5. What is “meekness?” What is not meant by meekness? 2 Timothy 1:7. How does Moses set a positive example of meekness? Numbers 12:1-9. How is Jesus the ultimate example of meekness? 1 Peter 3:18-25. What do the meek bear with?
4.      How is restraint or self-control an aspect of meekness? Prov. 12:16; 15:1. Why is this so hard? What is the improved outcome by doing it though?
5.      Read Psalm 9:18; 22:26; and 147:6. Here the word for “meek” carries the meaning of “lowly, afflicted, or poor.” How does being objectively lowly or meek in our need of help, also fit with the beatitude? Read Isaiah 61:1-7, and look for as many parallels as you can find to Matthew 5:1-12.
6.      Read Psalm 37:8-11. How does this passage also describe the self-control or restraint that accompanies meekness? What are the meek distressed by? What are they promised? Cf. Matthew 5:5.
7.      How are the future blessings of the kingdom of heaven physical? Read Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21:1.
8.      How does the word “inherit” speak of grace, and point us back again to God’s generosity and undeserved love in Christ? Galatians 3:29-4:1, 7.

9.      Finally, how does Jesus describe Himself as “meek” in Matthew 11:28-30 (see King James’ Version—other translations often use ‘gentle’, but the Greek word is the same from Matthew 5:5). What does He promise to those who follow Him and take up His yoke? How does this come full circle with Matthew 5:5 and Psalm 37:11?