Monday, November 26, 2018

Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Biblical Sobriety"

Grace to you and peace. Amen. Our readings from last week and this go right in order in 1 Thessalonians. Today Paul continues to explain Christ’s 2nd coming, the “day of the Lord.” Last week he talked about the hope of the resurrection from the dead on the last day, and the circumstances of Jesus’ return. Today Paul describes the suddenness and surprise of Jesus’ return, and calls us to readiness.
Paul warns us to be ready with an illustration of drunkenness vs. sobriety. “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8But 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.” If you’re in the dark, asleep, or drunk, you can be caught off guard. You can’t be as watchful and ready. You’re not ready for a quick response. Your senses and self-control are dulled. With the holidays around and the temptation to consume too much alcohol, we remember the reasons why it’s good to be sober. When you are sober, you keep full control of your reason and your senses. You’re safer and ready to respond to any situation. When you are sober you keep your “inhibitions”—meaning you keep the good sense not to engage in foolish or risky behaviors. When you are sober you are in clear control of your words and actions. The more a person becomes intoxicated, the more they lose control of all these.
So this is why Paul paints a picture of “Biblical Sobriety” for us. Just like physical sobriety, if we are also spiritually sober, we are watchful and ready to respond to any situation, and we keep our good sense, our spiritual inhibitions, watchful of danger, but free from irrational fears. The person who is “Biblically sober” walks a middle way between carelessness toward spiritual danger on one side, and timid, paralyzed fear on the other. To be Biblically sober we listen to God’s Word and hold onto sound teaching. We live with self-control.
Paul says we are “fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”—in other words, “no secret!” Jesus made it clear. But plenty of people will live in a na├»ve sense of safety, saying “There is peace and security” and will be taken by sudden destruction and will not escape. This is the “drunken” or “sleepy” mindset of those who listen to no warnings, and consider no danger. They ignore God’s Word and think that everything will always just continue as it has always been, and there’s no need for alarm. Last week I said the topic of the end of times brings up a lot of “fear-mongering”, and it does. That is not our way.
But Biblical Sobriety walks a line between ignoring real dangers on the one hand, and being a “Chicken Little” that is scared the sky is always falling on the other hand. A sober Christian listens to the Lord’s warnings, daily examines himself or herself for sins to confess, and turns to God for that forgiveness. They watch and wait with eagerness for Jesus to return. But they don’t cower in terror or in hiding, at every word of bad news. They don’t live in fear that the church is doomed because of every challenge or enemy that comes our way. Biblical Sobriety is resoluteness, confidence, and courage.
And this sense of sobriety is born in us because of who we are. Or better yet, whose we are. We are children of light, children of the day, not of the night of the darkness. That is to say that we throw aside the ways of sin, the temptations and the trappings of this world that would tie us up and keep us from focusing on the fullness of Christ’s joy. We are God’s chosen, baptized, beloved children, who have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light. And we walk with Him in light, in newness of life. Our baptismal identity is found in Him. He has made us, and not we ourselves. We are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Knowing who we are in Christ Jesus helps us to know how to live and to walk. We never want to forget who we are, so that we don’t return to foolish things.
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. Now it should be obvious that none of us can survive a week without physical sleep, much less several days. Physical sleep is essential to our bodies’ health. But the kind of watchfulness and sobriety that he is talking about is again spiritual. We don’t hide evil deeds and night or in the darkness. We don’t slumber and ignore the spiritual danger of our sins and of the darkness. Spiritual sobriety exposes our sins to the light of day, confessing them to Jesus and being forgiven. Spiritual sobriety rejoices that Jesus breaks our chains, and does not seek to return to chains. As often as we know our sin, so often should we confess it and be forgiven. Our sinful flesh always pulls us back. But our spiritual nature pulls us to the light.
But 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. A short reminder of the armor of God. Part and parcel of the identity God has given you is the protection that He gives for spiritual battle. God doesn’t send us unarmed or unprepared, but guards us with faith, hope and love. The devil would try to disarm you, but being Biblically Sober, watchful and on guard, you are alert to His schemes, and put yourself in God’s care and protection, praying in every danger.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Again, the believer does not live in fear of Jesus’ return, but with hope in God’s promises. Christ’s sudden return is not for our harm, but God warns us to be ready; not to be caught by surprise. We are ready by faith in Jesus; this right relationship He has given us. To be unprepared is not being in right relationship with God; not being watchful for His return. We recognize this. God repeatedly tells us in the Bible that He is not out for the destruction or condemnation of anyone—even the wicked and the unbeliever. Rather, His entire goal throughout all the Bible is to turn them back to Him, so that they may live. God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. God is patient in His return, so that as many as possible may reach repentance, and so come to salvation. But this world has an expiration date. An unknown date; so be ready always. God has destined us to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. That is His driving goal, that all would cling to Christ, so that when the world does expire, our souls are safe and secure in Him.
[He] died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Last week we talked about being awake or asleep in the Lord. If we have gone to sleep in the Lord—i.e. have died—one of the perks is that we will be first out of the grave to greet Jesus when He returns. But if we are still living, we will still live with Him.
Jesus died for us so that we might live with Him. Jesus also is the perfect example of Biblical Sobriety—He was not shaken or rattled by fear, even when great danger surrounded Him, but He always steeled His disciples’ fears with a word: Do not be afraid, or Peace be with you. He was sober and serious, warning all who would listen of the dangers of ignoring God’s truth and His call to repentance. Jesus warned against the danger of spiritual smugness, self-righteousness, or hypocrisy. Everyone should soberly judge themselves, and be ready to be called to account before God. But only Jesus Himself, can present us sanctified, washed clean of all sin, so that when we are called to account, we are in good standing before God. That good standing comes only by the grace of Jesus Christ, who keeps our spirit, soul, and body blameless for the day of His coming.
The reading closes with these words, just like chapter 4 last week: Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. If death and  the end of the world, seems like a frightening prospect—Jesus steels our nerves with a word of encouragement. Not that you would be afraid, but encouraged and built up. Continue this Christian way of life, Paul says. Don’t lose faith, don’t lose courage, but take heart and carry on.
This week, one particular devotion I read really struck home. It was the verse: Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. (Psalm 51:12). The devotion pointed out that sometimes life loses its wonder and joy, and we are worn down by the “daily grind” of work in the world. Chores, duties, and thankless tasks drain us, and frustrations make us lose sight of the greater purpose. So our prayer goes up for a willing spirit. We are pointed to the cross of Jesus—there, even in the bleakness of death and apparent abandonment, we see God’s mercy unfolding. Everything seemed beyond all hope when Jesus died; but three days changed all that, and Jesus rose from the grave. God can and will answer our prayer for a willing spirit to sustain us. So we don’t lose faith or courage, but take heart and carry on. Because Christ has already done as much and far more for us. He grants us a willing spirit to sustain us. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at

  1. Why is the return of Jesus always described as sudden? What warning or reminder always comes along with this? 1 Thessalonians 5: 2-4; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Matthew 24:36-51.
  2. What are some signs of the “unpreparedness” of those who are surprised at Jesus’ return? 1 Thess. 5:3-7; 2 Peter 3:3-5.
  3. Paul calls believers “children of the light”, “children of the day”, and “we belong to the day.” How does this speak to our identity? How does your identity shape how you live and act? Where does this Christian identity come from? Romans 6:1-11; Ephesians 4:22-24; 5:8-9.
  4. Physical sleep, drunkenness, and being in the darkness are all pictures of what spiritual reality, in 1 Thess. 5:5-8? (hint: what is wakefulness, sobriety, and being in the light a spiritual picture of?)
  5. Is God’s intention for our harm, that He comes suddenly? 1 Thessalonians 5:9? Cf. John 3:17-21; Ezekiel 18:23. What is His intention? 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4.
  6. In 1 Thessalonians 5:10, the image of being awake or asleep is not longer about spiritual watchfulness, but what instead?
  7. As in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 and Romans 15:4, what is the purpose of these Scriptures? Why are these things written down for us? Though many live in fear about the end of times, how does a Christian live? How do they hold their head? Luke 21:28.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Sermon on Psalm 8 and 19, for Thanksgiving Eve, "The Glory of God's Creation"

Psalm 8: 1 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 19: 1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.

It would be impossible to overstate the glory, the perfection of God’s handiwork, how much speech and knowledge are revealed about God by His creation. The heavens, the work of His fingers, the moon and stars, set in their place, and this earth, our home. Impossible to overstate the sheer testimony of God’s greatness revealed in all these things, and how miraculous our life and existence is. Johann Kepler, the Lutheran astronomer who helped identify the correct motions of the planets, described science as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”—perhaps reflecting on Scriptures such as Psalm 8 & 19. It’s sad, on one hand, that so many scientists pursue the knowledge that pours out of the creation, without seeing the Creator who made that book of knowledge, much less turning to the book of His revealed Word for even greater knowledge of the Creator. But on the other hand, their discoveries unwittingly continue to declare how awesome are all His works, even when they themselves won’t give God His due.
Faster and faster, science is uncovering the bewildering complexity of life and the material universe. Hundreds upon hundreds of textbooks are filled with that knowledge. But it shows how much we take for granted, even to simply exist, to sit here and eat or sleep or breathe or think, and to live in a world where discovery is possible, and where nature is comprehensible and rational. Scientists who don’t accept a Designer don’t expect nature to make sense in that way, but nevertheless it does. So they try to conjure explanations that rule God out, rather than accept the obvious.
On this Thanksgiving, I would like us to reflect on some of the gifts of creation that make that life, discovery, and a rational universe possible. Gifts we might not even have known, or simply take for granted. Here are some examples of the incredible goodness that God has written into the very fabric of creation and the universe that should inspire our awe and thankfulness:
  • Everything in the universe is made up of atoms, and the forces that hold these together are so finely balanced that if it were infinitesimally stronger or weaker, life would not be possible. If stronger, we would either get no hydrogen, fundamental for life; if weaker, than none of the other elements needed for life. So many other constants in our universe are so finely tuned in this same way, and only recently have scientists begun to fully understand how amazingly precise these balances are, and how the slightest variations would make life impossible.
  • The force of gravity—greater or lesser by even the tiniest fraction, and again, no life would be possible. Worlds would be crushed or would fall apart.
  • If our atmosphere was not the exact right composition to allow the controlled combustion of fire, humans could never develop technologies utilizing metals and creating plastics, ceramics, glass. Without fire, almost all the cooking, utensils, technologies, electricity, transportation, and countless other items wouldn’t exist. Also require the right kind of flammable fuels to create fire. Our closing hymn sings praise and thanksgiving for “wood” in the first verse. Who remembers to give thanks for wood? But without fire, where would we be? Earth’s gravity needs to be strong enough to hang onto oxygen, but too weak to hold onto hydrogen, or we couldn’t have fire.
  • Right balance between animals and organisms producing CO2 and plants producing O2 to supply each other. We have the right kind of sun that produces the right kind of light, and the right kind of atmosphere that allows that right kind of light into earth, that is the right band of energy for plants to produce energy by photosynthesis to give food and energy to almost all life on earth.
  • The earth is just the right distance from the sun to allow liquid water—too close, and it would all burn off, too far from the sun, it would all freeze. Either way, no life. Water is an amazing molecule that is vital for life—carrying all the things we need to live, but not too thick or thin (viscosity), and is very stable (not reactive). Slightest variations in the chemical properties of water and blood couldn’t circulate through living creatures, cells couldn’t work, we wouldn’t be able to moderate our body temperatures, or even the temperature of the planet would swing wildly.
  • A moon of the right size to create tides to circulate the waters of the oceans and prevent stagnation. A super stable sun (rare in the universe) that doesn’t have deadly and frequent radiation bursts that could overwhelm our magnetic field, and gives us the right amount of heat and light favorable for life.
  • A magnetic field that shields us from dangerous radiation that is steadily produced by the sun and throughout the universe. Life in outer space is deadly and harsh. Life on earth is supremely fit for life to thrive and exist.

These are just a tiny fraction of countless examples, all of them and many more that are necessary to our life and existence. Designed by God, all these realities of nature continue and operate without so much as our second thought. But now knowing all this reasons to give thanks for God’s gracious provision are multiplied. Truly the Psalmist’s words are profound today as ever: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.”
It’s a vast universe we inhabit. The more we discover, the more we realize how truly special our earth is in the midst of it all. Staggering, how infinitesimally small we are in the grand scheme of things, but how privileged a place God has given us. Like the Psalmist we wonder why God is mindful of us, that He cares for us. It’s easy to imagine with such a vast universe, that we should be forgotten, or of no importance. But to the contrary, God has so loved the world, that He gave His only Son. God so loved the world—in other words, we are the people of His special affection. And God gave His Son. How? By sending the Son of God to be born on earth as a Son of Man.
So actually, according to Hebrews 2, these verses from Psalm 8 are about Jesus: “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” At the same time that it speaks of the loving care and attention of God, it also shows the miracle of the incarnation, that Jesus is God in human form. And according to Hebrews 2, Jesus was made lower than the angels for a little while, but now is crowned with God’s glory and honor because of the suffering of death.
Why did God care for us in this way? Why did God humble Himself in this way? Hebrews answers, “so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” God’s care and providence for His amazing creation is the first miracle. But the second and greater miracle is His loving and amazing redemption, sending Jesus to save us from our sins. Every day we see the sun, the moon, the beautiful stars that declare God’s handiwork, and this earth and all the many features that make life possible. Every day give thanks. And God given us our life so that we might also hear and know of His grace and love for us. So that by the grace of God, Jesus would taste death for us, so that we could have eternal life with Him. Every day give thanks!
If God only gave us life on this earth, that would be a great blessing indeed. But not only this, God preserved us so that He could give us eternal life. As grand as life on this earth can be, so also is it greatly impoverished by the suffering, disease, death, and disaster that often falls on earth, because of sin. But God has overcome that in the gift of Jesus, His dear Son. God is making a new heavens and a new earth, His gift to share with all who believe in Jesus Christ. God our Great Giver is ever multiplying our reasons to give thanks, with blessing after blessing. 9 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, for the 25th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr), "Hope in the midst of grief"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The seasons of the church year are changing, and we are coming to the end of one year, and the beginning of the season of Advent in a couple of weeks, as we anticipate Christmas. The end of the church year focuses on Christ’s and coming judgment of the living and the dead. Today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 4 is often heard at funerals, but also gives us some basic information about Jesus return. Paul begins by saying that “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep.”
When Paul says “uninformed”, he’s obviously hinting that they have some basic shortcomings understanding death and the end times. One idea in the church seemed to be that some were afraid they had missed Jesus’ return and that He had already come. Today some shortcomings and confusion might include ideas about reincarnation and multiple lives, or ideas about a resurrection without a physical body, or that we turn into angels after death, rather than raised and glorified humans. Also there are too many confusions to name about the end of times, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of fear-mongering and a lot of twisting of God’s Word today. Jesus said that no one knows the day or hour of His return—but many knowingly violate that Word by trying to make predictions about the timing of the end of the world.
First of all, Paul uses a euphemism for death, calling those who have died, “those who are asleep.” A euphemism is a mild way of saying something that seems harsh or blunt. But here, and other places where the Bible talks about death, it’s not a matter of sugarcoating the reality that someone has died—but rather confessing the hope of the resurrection—that they will be raised up from the dead. A chapter later, Paul says “[Christ] died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him” (5:10). When we say that our beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord are “asleep with Christ”—we confess that they are with the Lord already, even now in His joy, but that their bodies will be awakened to everlasting life in the resurrection.
Then Paul says he wants us to be properly informed, so that we do ”not grieve as others do who have no hope.” So Paul divides humans into two groups—those who grieve their dead with hope, and those who grieve their dead without hope. Both grieve. And that’s important to stop and say, because sometimes people who are “uninformed” think that Christians should always be happy, or that if you’re not always happy, that you have to fake it. Faking our happiness drains our energy even faster, and makes it harder for us to experience real joy, according to one author (Kenneth Haugk, Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart, p. 15-16). Not only can we Christians grieve our dead or other losses, but it is actually healthy to do so. What is unhealthy is to bottle up our emotions or never allow an outlet. Jesus wept after the death of Lazarus, because He had compassion on the family—even though He was going to raise him shortly up from the dead. Death is always an invader in God’s good creation, and God mourns with us in our anguish. And because of Jesus’ power over death, we find hope in the midst of our grief. Hope in the promised resurrection.
Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. Jesus has not lost count or forgotten even a single one of His dear sheep. Scripture says that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15). Jesus will raise each and every one of His precious saints, with a renewed and glorified body like His. We are not uninformed about what the resurrection will be like—we know that it’s a body healed and perfect, glorified like Jesus’ is after His resurrection. No more suffering, tears, grief, or loss. We grieve, yes, because one has died, and we dearly miss them. But we have hope and joy, knowing that those who believe in Jesus are saved.
Paul moves from this, to declare a “word from the Lord.” He tells two things—1) the order of who will be raised with Jesus first, and 2) the circumstances of Jesus’ return. So the order, is that believers in Jesus who have already died, will be the first to rise up from the dead and join Jesus. Then anyone who is still alive and believes in Jesus, will follow after. So that means that unless Jesus comes first, and we meet Him while we are still alive, that we will all die. But then if we die, we will be among the first to meet Jesus when He returns.
Notice how public, not secretive are the circumstances of Jesus’ return. A certain teaching has become very widespread in the church today, called the rapture. It refers to the idea of being “caught up” together in the clouds with Jesus, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. But if someone asks you if you believe in the rapture—they usually don’t mean will we join Jesus up in the clouds when He returns? (Answer is YES, we will be caught up with Him, just as this verse describes). They usually mean do you believe that Christians are going to secretly disappear from the earth, and unbelievers will be “Left Behind” (like the popular novel series and movie in Christian bookstores), to face a terrible seven years of tribulation, before Jesus comes yet another time. In other words, this confusing idea of the “rapture”, adds an additional “secret return” of Jesus to take believers to heaven, followed by another return to take everyone in final judgment. Along with other problems, this gives a false idea of a “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus’s return.
Now I want to simply re-read the verses, so you hear what they say, and see how this rapture idea is inconsistent with what the Bible says. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” Notice how public, loud, and visible Jesus return will be! A cry of command from heaven, the voice of the archangel, and sound of the trumpet.
As the Gospel reading from Matthew 24 adds, the coming of the Son of Man will be like the lightning that flashes from east to west—it will be visible all across the sky. When Jesus ascended into heaven, and was hidden by the clouds, the angels told the disciples He would come back in the same way (Acts 1:11) i.e. descending from the clouds. The book of Revelation opens by saying ”Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.” (1:7). So everyone, even those who don’t believe in Jesus will see Him. No special teacher or interpreter will be needed to explain what is happening. It won’t be a secret event, off in some corner we didn’t hear about. Jesus’ return won’t be hidden from anyone, but public and visible across all the earth. Obviously, with the curvature of the earth, this will be a miracle just as much as Jesus own return itself from heaven will be a miracle.
There is also the matter that the Bible only describes Jesus returning once, not multiple times. Hebrews 9:27-28, in the same place where it affirms that we have one earthly life, also affirms that Jesus has been here once, when He was born, lived, died, and rose—but now will come once more, a second time: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Many of our Christian hymns sing this beautiful theme, that Jesus first came in lowliness, humility, suffering, and blessing—but His return will be in power, glory, majesty and victory.
Finally, why do we need to know these simple truths, about death and the resurrection, and about Jesus’ return? So that we may encourage one another with these words. Life in the sinful world can leave us feeling close to defeated, beaten down and awfully low. But God states again and again that the final victory belongs to Him, and that whatever losses we experience, even and especially death, that it will be restored to us in His kingdom. God’s Word is rich with encouraging words, to help us through the hard times of life. The long term benefits of His kingdom are delayed—but plenty blessings of life in Christ’s kingdom come to us already here and now. The mutual encouragement, sympathy, support and love of Christian brothers and sisters. The hope and encouragement of the Scriptures, written to strengthen us through difficult days. The constant presence of Christ, bearing us on His shoulders through the difficulties of life. Jesus meal of body and blood, given for the forgiveness of sins, bread for our journey, life and nourishment for branches on His Vine. In many ways, the long term benefits of Christ’s kingdom that await us in heaven, already reach backward through time to us now, and in Christ’s gifts the sacraments, He blesses, strengthens and encourages us even now.
Hope in the midst of your grieving is found in the words of Christ. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at

  1. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 assumes that Christians also grieve over their dead, as all other people do—but what is the difference? Why is it normal and natural to grieve over the dead? Why did even Jesus do it? What does that say about death, related to God’s purposes? John 11:35
  2. What are some typical things that we are “uninformed” about, concerning death, and what does God’s Word teach about them? For example, in this passage, what is the order of those who will be raised from the dead? What signals that Jesus’ return will be a public, universal  appearance? Cf. Acts 1:9-11; Revelation 1:7; Matthew 16:27; 24:27-31. How many lives do we get? Hebrews 9:27.
  3. Why does the Bible often use the euphemism “sleeping” to refer to death? What hope does this confess? 1 Thessalonians 5:10; Eph. 5:14.
  4. 1 Thess. 4:17 is where the infamous idea of the “rapture” comes from. As commonly taught in some churches, the idea is that Jesus will have a secret return where He takes believers to Himself, then 7 years of tribulation will happen on earth, followed by His public return in judgment. Why is this “rapture theology” inconsistent with what the Bible actually teaches? The Bible teaches only one return of Jesus, not multiple; cf. Hebrews 9:28; Acts 1:11. What marks it as public?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sermon on Isaiah 51:9-16, for the 24th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr lectionary), "Waiting for the Lord's Arm"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In Isaiah 51:5, just before our reading, God tells His people that His righteousness and salvation are near. He says that His arm will judge the peoples, but that His people wait for God’s arm. God’s arm is His power and might to act, to save, to deliver. So they are waiting on God’s action, His deliverance, and where our reading begins in verse 9, they are crying out to God: “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!” They are calling on God as if He is late, or asleep, or has forgotten them. In times of trial and difficulty, like the exile the Israelites endured, it’s a common feeling to wonder where is the “arm of the Lord?”
In times of our distress, in times when we cry out to the Lord and seem to hear no answer, we too wait for the Lord’s arm. Anxious for His help, crying out for Him to act, our faith is tested. Faith is not tested or strengthened by ease and comfort, but by bearing the cross. In these times, we lift up our eyes to the hills—and where does our help come from? Our help comes from the Lord.
In Isaiah, when they cry out to wake up the arm of the Lord, they remember how in days of old—He flexed His arm and defeated Pharaoh and the Egyptians when He dried up the sea. He led the Israelites across the Red Sea on dry ground. He ransomed them from slavery, and brought them out safely. Even while all that was happening, they were still doubting and mistrustful of God and Moses—but God remained faithful and continued to work wonders by His arm. Now, remembering all that, they call God to act again with His strength and might. This is the familiar posture of believers—remembering God’s record of faithful deliverance, and begging God to save by His mighty arm once again. One former professor said this was the Hebrew way of thinking; to enter the future facing the past. What he meant is that while we can’t see the future or what is ahead of us—we can know God’s record of faithfulness, and count on Him to safely guide us into the future. Looking to the past, we see God’s arm working especially when things seemed in doubt; but God never abandoned His people. We are blind to the future, but He is not, so we can step backwards, trusting in His lead, looking back over all the examples of His faithfulness to us and to previous generations.
What happens when God does save with His arm? V. 11, And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Those who wait upon the Lord shall not be put to shame (Ps. 25:3). Their patience is rewarded with singing, and everlasting joy. God will chase away all sorrow and sighing. There have been many heavy sighs, sobs, and expressions of sorrow in our congregation these past weeks. Life in the sinful world is never completely fair or just; it is often cruel and unfeeling. Life’s tragedies strike when we least expect, and we cry out for the arm of the Lord to be revealed, to take action. And sometimes our prayers are answered in the way that we hoped, and other times not. But in neither situation do our prayers fall on deaf ears. In neither situation has God fallen asleep or forgotten us. In the mystery of God’s will, sometimes the Lord gives, sometimes He takes away. But God’s final reward for those who wait on Him, is an everlasting homecoming to Zion—a joyful return where singing, and joy and gladness will be our permanent possession. All the sorrows and tears and sadness of this life will be driven away.
In v. 12, God answers: “I, I am He who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor? He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking.” Here God contrasts the power of His arm, to the power of men, who oppress or make themselves enemies of God’s children. Is there any comparison? NO! But even though there is no comparison, He says we fear men, who will die and face God’s judgment, but we forget God, who made the heavens and the earth! That’s the work of His hands! When you gaze at the splendor of the stars, and cannot even fathom how far they reach, or you take in the splendid views of mountain and sea on Maui—can you help but wonder at the majesty of our God? Yet why do we fear men, who are here today and gone tomorrow? Why do we “fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor?” God will rescue His children. He ransoms His servants. And God Himself comforts us. God’s own Word speaks to our heart, and nourishes our wounds.
This passage reminds me of a powerful scene in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the longsuffering Uncle Tom declares to a wicked slave master who is beating him—that you may have bought my body, but you haven’t bought my soul. Jesus has bought my soul, and there’s nothing you can do to harm it. Evil met its match in forgiveness and love, as when Jesus died on the cross. The wrath of the oppressor is bent to destroy us, but who is He against our God? If God is for us, who can stand against? Even if our rescue comes only through death, God will deliver us, and thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, even death cannot hold us back from God’s redemption. Who is the devil to oppress us and destroy us? Even his fate is written in the Word of God, for everlasting punishment.
In the darkest times, God does not abandon us, and we are reminded of that most of all when Jesus hung on the cross and cried out those painful words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Never did a soul experience forsakenness as deeply as Jesus when He hung on the cross. Jesus, who sees and knows all things, and whose relationship to God the Father had never been hindered by sin in any way—and who knew the Father’s will—Jesus experienced that forsakenness from God in those terrible hours. But even in those depths of grief, God had not abandoned Him. God raised Jesus up from the dead, and the wrath of the oppressor, God’s enemy, is overthrown and defeated.
So instead of fearing man and forgetting God, we should do the reverse! Fear God and remember His mighty arm! Wait on His arm and His deliverance. And remember that even when God’s arms were pinned by nails to the cross, and everything seemed forsaken and lost, God’s arm was not shortened to save. God worked a mighty deliverance when He raised Jesus from the dead. And our future hope and confidence is built on His mighty arm raising us and all believers to life again in Him. Rising to a body free of sorrows and sighing, and renewed in everlasting joy and gladness.
The closing verses of the reading say: “I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” God’s arm is still mighty to save—we do not know His timing, we do not know His mysterious ways, but we know that His will is always best, and nothing can separate us from the love of God for those who are in Christ Jesus. God still stirs up the seas by the power of His arm. He still rules the angels and the heavens on high.
And He puts His words in our mouth and covers us with the shadow of His hand. In other words, He gives the precious message of His Gospel to His people. He puts His Truth in our mouth, so that we confess His mighty name and all His works. From our songs of praise and joy, to our prayers and intercession for those in need, or speaking words of encouragement from scripture to those who need it, or speaking the lifesaving message of the Gospel to those who hear, God puts His words in our mouth. And His hand is stretched over us in protection, shading us from darkness, danger, and evil. We are God’s treasured people.
Truly, those who wait on the arm of the Lord will delight in His deliverance. All in His good timing, and we cannot determine our own wait time. But God’s ransomed people are promised to enter His Holy City Zion, and to enter it with everlasting joy. And God will be our comfort. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Funeral sermon, Isaiah 42:3, Romans 6:11, "Alive in Christ!"

**This funeral message was given after one of our church family took her own life. The names have been removed for family privacy. We, along with many others urge those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out to someone and ask for help--a pastor, teacher, mentor, friend, counselor. There IS HOPE, though depression can often cloud us from seeing it. Do not be ashamed to ask for help. The Lord be with you!**
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. [Names of family]…when Jesus was going away from His disciples, He said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27). Today let’s explore and absorb His peace, peace that is unlike anything the world can give—Jesus’ transcendent peace. With that peace in our hearts we need not be troubled or afraid. Because today our hearts are weighed down by a raw grief—our beloved sister in the Lord, [name]  , is dead. And doubly painful, she took her own life.
Suicide—sometimes the word feels like a taboo, a topic we can’t talk about, or a stigma and shame that keeps us silent when we are hurting. Feelings we hide from others, for fear of judgment or discovery of our weaknesses, or some other reason. But we must be willing to break that taboo and speak about this topic, to do everything we can to stop this preventable cause of death. From the year 1999 till 2016, suicide rates have been increasing in 49 of 50 states, and the 50th already has a higher than average level, according to the Center for Disease Control. It’s being called a public health crisis. A bad, growing problem. But behind every statistic is a person and a story. And [name] is not a statistic, she is your beloved wife, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, coworker. All who knew her knew that she was a kind and special friend. Sadly, she was troubled by many of these suicidal thoughts that tempt so many others.
She, [name] and I had a lengthy conversation about these thoughts just the week before she took her own life. She agreed that it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and not the right solution. She agreed that she didn’t want to hurt anyone else, and she knew how much [name] and others loved her, but she seemed numb to comfort. We didn’t know how far she was made up in her mind to do this. She also feared that she had become too weak in her faith, and didn’t know how to hang on the Christ. We reassured her again and again that God has her securely in His arms, and that it wasn’t on her strength, or the strength of her faith that she is saved, but on Christ, our Solid Rock.
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, please, we beg you, speak to someone, so you can receive help, love, and hope. [name], we have said many times since this happened, that there was hope surrounding [name], but she just couldn’t see it—not because people weren’t surrounding her with love, prayer, and encouragement—they were doing all of those things—but this dark cloud was hiding that hope from her eyes. She agreed, when we talked, that it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and that it’s wrong. But she was also overwhelmed by life, by the battle that she appeared to be losing against cancer, and her own fears. Sometimes, in that dark place, people entertain dark thoughts that maybe this their only escape from all the stresses and difficulties (it’s not), or that things would be better if they were gone (in reality, it leaves a painful, gaping hole in our lives). These are the conversations we need to have, so that no one suffers silently or alone, or thinks that there is no help or hope for them. There is always help to be had, and hope to be found, if nowhere else, than still always in Jesus. Even if there is no medical hope for us, there is hope in Jesus. Even if there is no peace that the world can give us, there is the peace that Jesus gives, that the world cannot take away from us.
We are also here to say that God has forgiven [name] for taking her life, and we forgive her. [name] has forgiven her, and we confess that it wasn’t on the strength of her struggling faith but on the strength of Jesus, that she is saved, and is now resting from her sorrows, and joined in the peace of God’s eternal presence. God made [name] His precious child in the waters of baptism, where He called her, and He placed His holy name upon her, and adopted her as His precious daughter. God has not left [name], even through all this horrible ordeal that she went through, and you, the survivors are still going through. God’s promises to [name] stand true, regardless of whatever weaknesses she had. God did not abandon her.
One of the Scripture verses we often talked about, was Isaiah 42:3. It describes God’s chosen servant Jesus. He would not break a bruised reed, or put out a dimly burning wick, but will faithfully bring forth justice. What is a bruised reed, or a dimly burning wick? It’s a person whose faith is in a crisis, like [name], who is hanging by a thread, or a candle flickering and ready to go out—the embers of flame are darkening, and the light is almost extinguished. But how does God treat such a person? Does Jesus snuff out the weak in faith? Does He break the bruised reed? NO! This wonderful verse tells us that Jesus is near to the broken, the suffering, the discouraged and defeated. When Jesus came on earth, His life was marked by compassion, and a special attention to those who were hurting. He was near to [name].
And so it is with our faith, when we are weak, He is strong. And thanks be to God that it’s not the strength of our faith, that saves us, but the strength of our Savior, and the goodness of His promises and faithfulness. Another verse we often discussed over the past year, was from Romans 6:11, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” I often ask people at church, and several times asked [name] and [name], “Why does it say: ‘You must consider yourselves…?’” It’s because we have a problem thinking this way. Our experience, our observation, often leads us to think otherwise. We feel as though sin is winning the battle in us. We fear that somehow we are not worthy enough, or deserving of God’s grace, and that we somehow should be able to do something more, that would qualify us, or make us at least feel that we could accept that grace from God.
But the truth is, that none of us are deserving or worthy enough! That’s the miracle of God’s grace! It’s not about what you’ve done or earned. [name] knew this in her heart, I heard her admit it. Many of you, no doubt also were touched by her strength of faith and witness to the Lord, in her better days. She knew the grace of God. But how often sin battles against us, and we begin to doubt whether we are really dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. But Paul knew we have a problem thinking this way. We know that life assaults us with all kinds of hardships, and the devil will do anything to sow doubt and fear in our minds. For this reason Paul writes “You must consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus!” Why must we think this way? Because it’s true! Because, as the early verses read, we have been buried with Christ Jesus by our baptism, into His death, and we are raised to new life in Him, in the same way! God has objectively done this for us. Our feelings become the enemy of the truth, when they tell us otherwise than God’s Word and Promises. Faith calls us to believe His promise, and not believe our deceptive feelings. This is why we have to tell ourselves again and again, the Truth of God’s Word, and reaffirm those promises.
[name] is a beloved child of God, a daughter of her heavenly Father, a baptized child of God, and an heir of Jesus’ promises. The grief she carried in these last weeks and months of her life, is a grief that we were unable to lift—but it was not too great for God to lift. And He has now lifted that grief from her. Jesus promised whoever believes in Him, even though they die, yet they shall live eternally with Him. [name] has His promise of the resurrection of her body on the Last Day. A body free from cancer, from sin, from illness, sorrow, or any other grief.
As the family and I talked about this loss and grief, I also want to share with you this closing thought. Here is my question: “What is a scar?” A scar, simply, is a healed wound. We are all experiencing an open wound right now—we didn’t get to say goodbye to [name]; we wish we could have said or done more, or that we had known; we ache for her pain and fear that drove her to this, and wish that somehow we could still express our love for her. These wounds are fresh. But there will be healing for these wounds.
Do you know what Jesus did, when He died on the cross, and rose again from the dead after three days? He went and visited His disciples. Their wounds were still fresh, the grief of seeing their beloved Lord die that awful death on the cross. Jesus is no stranger to sorrow. But when He appeared to His disciples, He showed them His scars—nail marks in His hands and feet. The spear wound in His side. Healed wounds, that were proof of life and proof of identity. One writer has called Christ the Wounded Healer, echoing the words of Scripture, that “by His wounds we are healed.” What are we healed from? Most importantly, we are healed from our sins—all the great and small wrongs, rebellions, hurtful words or actions that we have done—all the dark and troubling thoughts we have ever nurtured and allowed to grow within us, all our doubts, weaknesses, fears—Christ heals them all. He destroyed the curse of sin and death by His own death, so that He could bring upon us His true healing—that we would be dead to sin, and alive to God in Him. By His wounds, we are healed.
And as Christ is the Wounded healer, so also He has made us to become little “christs”—Christians, who are also wounded healers. If we have open wounds, come to Christ, receive His healing, open to His Word and prayer, speak to a trusted Christian friend, and find the healing that is in the wounds of Christ. And we also each have scars, healed wounds—physical, spiritual, emotional or mental. And with our scars, we can also help others heal as we relate to them with compassion from our own healed wounds, and point them to the scars of Christ, our Great Wounded Healer. For we confess that [name] is alive with Him. We are alive with Him also! Dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus! Amen!