Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Repent and Turn to Jesus for He Longs to Forgive You!

Luke 23:32-34 There have been times when we have wandered far and wide from the narrow way that leads to eternal life.  There have been times when we have not treasured God’s Word and the sacraments as we should.  There have been times when we got caught up in some besetting sin and rather than repenting of it, we made room for it in our lives.
            And when we find ourselves in these spiritually dangerous places, in these times when we are living in opposition to God’s will, we cannot help but wonder to ourselves:  has God given up on me because I have given up on him?  Will God take me back when I am so far gone?  Will God forgive this sin one more time when I have promised him again and again I am done with it, only to fall—again and again?
When we find ourselves in those kinds of places—when go through those kinds of times—when we ask those kinds of questions:  I want you to remember tonight’s sermon and turn to Jesus for he longs to forgive you. 
He shows that longing by identifying with sinners and by dying on the cross.  He shows that desire by establishing the means of Grace in the church and shows that concern by leaving no detail of salvation undone.
Your forgiveness—your restoration to God’s family-- is why Jesus took on flesh and if there had been only you and your sins in a whole world full of perfectly holy people, Jesus would have still come into this world to bear your sin and suffer and die and rise again for your forgiveness.
In the few short verses that we have before us today for our Lenten meditation we see how true it is that we can always repent and turn to Jesus for he longs to forgive us.  The Bible says that:  Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.
Our Lord began his public ministry by identifying himself with sin and sinners in the waters of the Jordan River as he was baptized by John. 
John knew that there was absolutely no need for Jesus to be baptized for himself for he was the sinless Son of God and he drew back from even the thought of Jesus being identified with those who were repenting of their sins and being baptized-- to say nothing of the brood vipers that was standing there looking on.
But Jesus insisted.  He said that his baptism was necessary to full all righteousness and so a holy, sinless Son of God walked down into those sin-filled water and came out bearing them all as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We see that same picture of our Lord again and again throughout his earthly ministry, identifying himself with sin and sinners.  He talked with a sinful woman at Jacob’s well.  He ate with Matthew and Zacheaus and other public sinners.  And he let a sinful woman anoint his feet and wipe them with her hair.
The religious leaders of the day constantly criticized him, saying that he was a friend of sinners.  And that is true, he was. 
Jesus never kept himself aloof from sinners—not from the repentant ones like Matthew and Zacheaus.  Not from the self-righteous ones like the Pharisees and Scribes whose homes he ate in as well. 
And not even from two criminals, convicted of capital crimes who carried their crosses alongside of him to Golgotha.
As we turn our eyes of faith to Jesus carrying his cross down the way of suffering along with two other condemned men headed to death for their crimes, we see just exactly the love that Jesus has for sinners and we know that when we repent and turn to him in faith we will be forgiven because that is what he longs to do.  The Bible says that: 
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
            When have wandered from the Lord, when we have committed some grave sin or when we have committed the same pet sin over and over—we may wonder and worry to ourselves:  can I really count on being forgiven one more time and can I count on being forgiven one more time after that?
The answer to those questions-- and the cure for those doubts—is found right here before our eyes. 
To forgive our sins Jesus was called every hateful name in the book.  He was ridiculed and mocked.  He was spit upon and struck in the face.  He was whipped so severely that many criminals did not survive it.  His hands and feet were nailed to a cross and a crown of thorns was placed upon his head.  The Bible says that those who knew him could not recognize him, so horrific were his injuries.  He gasped for every breath.  He suffered the pains of hell as he was abandoned by his Father and he died a slow, agonizing death.
All of this to forgive you.
And so then, the question for us when we get caught up in some sin is not:  will Jesus forgive me?  The question is:  what hasn’t he done to forgive me?  The question is not:  are my sins too great to be forgiven?  The question is:  why do I think that all my sins that I have ever committed or will ever commit are greater than a single drop of the blood of the son of man or more powerful than a single moment of his suffering. 
Will Jesus forgive my sins?  Can I turn to him no matter how often I fall?  These questions are answered once and for all in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
And that we might believe it, the Lord speaks words of forgiveness to us again and again.  The Bible says that:  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
            There around the cross that day were all kinds of people who deserved no forgiveness from Jesus and would have received no forgiveness from us. 
There would be no clemency from the Roman government for two thieves, their crimes were worthy of death.  Jesus’ closest friends denied him, betrayed him and abandoned him.  The religious leaders loved their place and position more than the truth of the Bible they knew so well.  And the Roman soldiers crucified the Lord of life.
Betrayal.  Cruelty.  Cowardice.  These and many, many more were the sins piled up around the cross that dark Friday afternoon and the sinless Son of God had one thing to say about the whole sad, sorry mess:  Father, forgive them.  Forgiveness for all those sins.  Forgiveness for all those people.
And that we might hear those same words in our own day, with our own ears—and that we might know that those words are spoken to the sinners gathered here today and the whole sad, sorry mess that we have brought into this place--our Lord Jesus Christ continues to say:  Father, forgive them.
When the pastor stands before us in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and pronounces absolution, we hear the voice of Jesus:  Father, forgive them.  When the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ crucified for sinners is preached from this pulpit the voice of Jesus is heard in our midst:  Father, forgive them.  When we come to this altar and receive the body and blood of Jesus, we hear the voice of Jesus:  Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.
Because our Lord Jesus Christ longs to forgive us—no matter how great our sin and no matter how often we have come to him-- he continues to speak the words he spoke at a cross to an entire world of people who need his forgiveness:  Father, forgive them
And that is what he did, leaving nothing unfulfilled in his mission to win our forgiveness.  The Bible says that:  They cast lots to divide his garments.  Bible scholars tell us that over the course of his life Jesus fulfilled over 350 specific Old Testament prophecies and he continued to do that right up until the moment the breathed his last. 
Just think of it!  Jesus was so concerned for your salvation—he so longed for you forgiveness—that even in his last moments on the cross he was making sure that there was not even the smallest detail left unfulfilled of what was promised of the Messiah’s work.
That the soldiers would divide his garments is prophesied by David in Psalm 22.  It really is a minor detail but even as our Lord suffered and died he wanted to make sure that everything was accomplished for our forgiveness and salvation. 
So he continues to do every moment and circumstance of our lives, in every detail promising to work all things for our eternal good.  Why shouldn’t we turn to this One who made sure that everything was done for our forgiveness.

 No matter we have done, no matter how far we have wandered, no many times we have come to the Lord we can be confident that he longs to forgive us because he has become one of us and died our death—because he continues to speak words of forgiveness and life-- and because he has left no detail unfinished when it comes to our forgiveness and salvation.  Turn to the Lord for he longs to forgive you.  Amen.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Standing in God's Grace

Whether you are a family trying to get out of debt or a young person preparing for a career or someone trying to lose weight—you need a plan. 
As different as these goals are—the plans to get out of debt and build a business and become a doctor  and lose weight all share the same characteristics:  where are you right now—your goal at the end—how you are going to get there—and what resources are at your disposal to reach your goal.  Every plan has those steps.
The same thing is true in our life of faith.  All of us have the goal of going to heaven when we die.  And so we need to know where we are right now in our journey of faith.  We need to know how it is that God is going to bring us to himself in heaven.  And we need to know what spiritual resources we can count on to get us there.  Paul writes:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…
            Standing in God’s grace.  That is where we are right now and it’s a great place to be when it comes to our life with God! 
Standing in God’s grace means that when it comes to our relationship with God:  we can be confident that God’s  attitude towards us is one of love and blessing.  Far from being “out to get us”—God is for us. 
But how did we come to this remarkable place of blessing and favor?
Paul says that we have been justified by faith in Jesus and that through him—we have gained access into this precious place of standing in God’s grace.  And so it’s through faith in Jesus that God has counted us righteous in his sight.  God himself has counted Christ’s holy life as our own righteousness.  God himself has counted Christ’s death on the cross as our punishment for our sins. 
The wrath that God has towards sinners has been taken away and replaced by peace so that we can be absolutely confident that God looks upon us with a shining face of love and desires to bless us with every good gift of body and soul.  Grace is where we are and faith has brought us there.  That is why we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Our goal is to one day live in the presence of the glory of God with his light and love and life shining upon us forever and ever.  This is the goal of the Christian life.  To that end…
God has created you by his almighty Word- and redeemed you at the cost his Son’s blood- and brought you to himself by the power of the Holy Spirit- for a single purpose:  that you would live with him in heaven—so that his glory would shine upon you forever in joy and peace.  As Christian people we rejoice in that hope.
So far we have learned:  1. Where we are right now:  standing in grace 2.  How we got there: by faith in Jesus 3. and what our goal is:  eternal life in the presence of the glory of God.  The next step in God’s plan is getting us there.  Paul writes about God’s work to bring us to heaven through the hardships and difficulties of life:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame
            There are going to be some hardships along the way until we reach the glories of heaven.  But far from complaining about hard times, we can actually rejoice in the midst of them because we know that there is a God of love who is wisely, graciously, lovingly, patiently working in those hard times for our good-- to form us into the image of his Son and prepare us for an eternal life in his presence. 
And so how does God do that exactly?  What are the steps that God takes in that plan?
First of all, we just need to accept that there are going to be hard times and there is going to be some suffering in this life.  We live in a broken world- and we are broken people- and there are going to be times when that brokenness comes to rest on us and those we love.  But as we endure those times, we come to see that what we thought was unbearable, has actually made us stronger.
            Character is produced in us as we face and overcome the challenges of life.  When we discover (through trials) that God will equip us and strengthen us for whatever difficulties we have to endure—ever so slowly we begin to change on the inside—we become more courageous and confident—we develop an inner resolve—we gain a mental and emotional strength.  Our character grows.  And character produces hope.
That is where God is working to bring us—to a firm hope in him—confidently facing the future and eternity—because we know the God who has been our help every step along the way has promised to remain our help until we get to heaven.
Suffering.  Endurance.  Character.  Hope.  Let me just summarize this process with an analogy.  All of us who are parents know what we want at the end of our child-rearing years:  we want decent, hardworking, Christian adult sons and daughters. 
And so, is the best way to achieve this goal to give them every thing they want on a sliver platter, to pamper them into helplessness, to never challenge them beyond where there are in any given moment?  Is that the best plan?  Of course not!  It’s a recipe for disaster! 
If we have sense enough to know that that formula doesn’t work for our children—why on earth would we demand that our heavenly Father work that way among us—his children?  That is a recipe for spiritual disaster! 
But as little as we would spoil our children, neither would we let our children fend for themselves without our help-- and neither does our heavenly Father leave us to our own resources and strength to work our way to heaven. 
Every bit of God’s plan to bring us to our heavenly home (through suffering and endurance and character and hope) is accomplished in us by HIS loving help.  Paul says that: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  And so what does that mean?  It means that:
Every time we hear God’s Word preached (the law that corrects us and the Gospel that comforts us) every time we hear that our sins are forgiven—every time we receive Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion—there, in those places, and in those moments—God is pouring his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit—to give us those spiritual resources we need to reach our heavenly goal—which is why he sent his Son in the first place.  Paul writes: 
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
All of us understand the challenges of reaching a goal.  Lots of kids want to be doctors until the hard work of physics and chemistry kick in.  Plenty of us have lost and gained back hundreds of pounds.  We get one bill paid off only to be faced by another.  We know about failure in meeting goals. 
And so how can we be confident as Christian people that we WILL make the goal of heaven?  It‘s because the One who has already accomplished so much for  us has promised that we will-- and his track record of accomplishing what seems to us impossible—is perfect. 
While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.  It you think you are weak now (and that causes you to worry about reaching heaven) think what you were before you came to faith in Jesus!  That is real weakness!
Romans 5:1-8 But it was at that moment—when you had no spiritual resources of your own—that God loved you and sent his Son to die for you.  It is while you were still sinners—incapable of pleasing God—incapable of even making a start towards God—that Christ died for you.
This is the deep, abiding, everlasting love that God has for each and every one of you and having sent his Son to die for you—having brought you to himself by the Spirit’s work in Holy Baptism—having sustained your faith through word and sacrament up to this point—HE WILL NOT STOP working to bring you to heaven until you are safe and sound, standing in his presence, basking in his glory.
And so when you think about how far you still have to go to get to heaven—when you are in the midst of some kind of sorrow or suffering—when your sins seem to overwhelm your faith—remember what you learned today: that through faith in Jesus you stand in God’s grace RIGHT NOW.

He is at work in your life in hard times to shape and mold you into the image of his Son—and that having sent his Son to die for you while you were still a sinner—he CERTAINLY will not give up on you until you reach your heavenly goal.  Amen.

Turn to Jesus For He Holds the Keys to Heaven!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Faith Counted as Righteousness

Turn to Jesus for He Holds the Key to Heaven!

Luke 23:35-43 The Bible begins with God and man living in perfect fellowship in a beautiful garden.  The Bible ends with God and man living in perfect fellowship in a beautiful garden.  In between those beautiful bookends of life and fellowship is the story of man’s sin and God’s salvation. 
Standing directly in the middle is what we see tonight:  the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sin that brought him there and the sacrifice that has restored what we have lost. 
And if we are to journey from one end of the Bible’s story to another—if we are to go from Paradise lost to Paradise found-- we must know and believe what the repentant thief knew and believed:  that the keys to heaven and a life with God are held in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ.  The Bible say that:  the people stood by, watching.
Dear friends in Christ, we are in that crowd.  We are those people watching these events unfold in the pages of Holy Scripture.  We are those people hearing the accusation of the world against the man of the cross.
And as we witness these events unfold—and as we hear the words that are spoken on Golgotha—every one of us will depart from that place tonight in one of two ways:  believing the words of Jesus that he is the one who holds the keys of heaven-- or rejecting that claim. 
God grant us faith to turn a deaf ear to the lies of evil men and believe the words of Jesus that when we breathe our last, we will enter with him into Paradise—for there were many that days who rejected him-and his words- out of hand.  The Bible says that: 
The rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
            When Jesus was baptized and began his earthly ministry, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him and God the Father proclaimed him his beloved Son.  John saw him and said:  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  In his hometown synagogue, Jesus opened the Scriptures from Isaiah that had to do with the coming Messiah and said, Today these scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing
When John the Baptist was confronted with the executioners sword and faced his own death, Jesus assured him the signs of the Messiah (the deaf being able to hear and the blind being able to see and the poor being helped and the lame walking) had all been fulfilled.
For anyone who had even the smallest grasp of the Old Testament, the evidence was inescapable:  This Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to send a Savior for the world.  He was the Christ.
The religious leaders of the people of Israel should have been the ones leading the way to bring people to Jesus.  But instead, they were opposing him every step of the way.  And what is so shocking about that rejection of Jesus is that by their own testimony, they knew that Jesus had indeed saved others:  He saved others, they said.  And he had!
He saved a sinful woman from being stoned to death by forgiving her.  He saved a widow from economic disaster by raising her son from the dead.  He saved a broken woman bent from the waist and another with a flow of blood from a lifetime of misery be healing them.  How true the testimony of the religious leaders at the cross:  he saved others!
And yet THEY denied him and mocked him and convicted him unjustly and demanded from him one sign after another even as he died because no sign will even be enough for someone who does not believe the witness of Holy Scripture about Jesus. 
When John the Baptist faced his own death he believed the testimony of Scripture about Jesus and entered into Paradise.  The religious leaders who stood at the foot of the cross rejected it and would remain outside forever.  What about the others there that day?  The Bible says that:
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”   
            These men knew what a king was.  They served one.  They knew about power and strength and the kind of peace that could prosper an empire.  At that moment in world history the Pax Romana held sway over the greatest empire that had ever existed. 
These men knew about the glory and wealth and prestige that accompanied the Roman emperor.  But they did not know the King of all Kings and the Lord of all Lords and they did not have a place in his kingdom despite the fact that the emblems of his reign were readily seen.
This king that was being crucified didn’t rule over some earthly nation or empire even one as great as Rome—he ruled the world.  He spoke to the wind and the waves and commanded them to be still and they were. 
This humble king did not rule by force of arms for there was no need.  With merely a word he caused a violent, armed mob to fall helpless at his feet. 
This dying king did not send men to their death by his cold, calculating command-- but rather called men to come to him and have life. 
His royal power gave life where there was death and forgiveness where there was sin and eternal riches where there was spiritual poverty and true and lasting peace where there was conflict and hard feelings.
Most importantly, this king ruled an eternal kingdom that even his death could not end and he gave places in that kingdom to all who could see him for who he was even in the face of great evil and death.  The Bible says that
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
            As we watch on with the bystanders around the cross that dark Friday afternoon, perhaps it is these words of the dying thief that pose the greatest obstacle to us confessing Jesus as the One who holds the keys to heaven-- for this is the response of a broken and dying world to our confession faith. 
The unbelieving world around us says, “Fine!  We are glad enough to believe that Jesus is the promised Savior and a mighty king!  We’d like to believe that there is a heaven to come.  But what about our situation right here and right now!  We are broken!  We are dying!  We are in need!  If Jesus is who he says he is—if he is who you claim to be—let him change things for me right here and right now and then I will believe.”
            And it is this assault upon both the goodness and power of Jesus that causes us so much difficulty as we confront a world that is broken and dying and filled with misery. 
But here is the thing:  it is ONLY at the cross that we see the answer to mankind’s need!  It is only at the cross that we see the goodness of God on full display as he sacrifices himself for the sins of the world.  It is only at the cross that we see the power of God on full display as he reconciles a world to himself and restores all things broken by sin.  The old Lenten hymn says it this way: 
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, See Him dying on the tree!  'Tis the Christ by man rejected; Yes, my soul, 'tis He! 'tis He! 'Tis the long-expected Prophet, David's Son, yet David's Lord; Proofs I see sufficient of it:  'Tis the true and faithful Word.
            There at the cross—in the One who suffers and dies for the sins of the world—is the sufficient proof that Jesus is the only one who can open the way back to God for us-- and that proof calls for our for our confession and faith just like the repentant thief.  The Bibles says:
The other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
            Every little Lutheran grew up confessing that he was a poor, miserable sinner and that he justly deserved God’s temporal and eternal punishment and maybe we thought to ourselves that this is just what Lutherans do.  But that confession of sin and that understanding that we deserve in time and eternity is punishment, is not a Lutheran thing—it is a bible thing that goes all the way back to what the repentant thief said on the cross! 
He understood that he was simply getting what his sins deserved.  He recognized that this is the course that sin always takes because the wages of sin is death—not just for the thief—not just for the really terrible sinners—but for all of us.
But he also knew and confessed and believed that even in that dark moment of sin’s consequence—even with death staring him in the face—there was still hope for him because of Jesus.  So it is for us. 
The rest of our confession is this: “I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”
Again, that is not a Lutheran thing—that is a Bible thing—it is exactly what the repentant thief said:  This man has done nothing wrong!  He is innocent!  Jesus, remember me!  And so he would!  Jesus said:  “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Those are the gracious, merciful words that Jesus speaks to every repent sinner who turns to him in faith:  You will be with me in Paradise!
Here’s what those words mean to you and me.  The Paradise that we have lost on account of sin (our relationship with God, our purpose in life, even our very lives) has been restored to us by Jesus Christ. 

He is the blood covering provided by God that hides our guilt and shame.  He is the tree of life that we can hold to and live forever.  He is the Savior King who holds in his hands the keys to heaven and opens it to us who cast ourselves on his mercy and confess him as our king.  Amen.