Saturday, April 21, 2018

Living as Servants of Christ


1 Peter 2:11-20 We spend an hour a week in church on Sunday hearing the Word of God and receiving Holy Communion and being among God’s people. If we stay for Bible class that’s an extra hour and during Lent and Advent there is another hour.
Basically, we spend an hour or two a week here in church, listening to and studying God’s Word, enjoying the fellowship of our fellow Christians—and then it’s out into the world for the other 167 hours of the week. This is where the real spiritual battle to live as servants of God takes place. The Bible says:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
The challenge of being Christians in the world begins in our own heart and how we see ourselves. The Bible says that we are “sojourners and exiles”. In other words, this world is not our true home—we are citizens of another place—we are simply passing through to our true home with God in heaven.
And so then, as sojourners and exiles we are to embody the values of our true home (which is God’s kingdom) and our rightful King (who is Jesus).
But the truth of the matter is, we are attracted to values of this unbelieving world and we are constantly tempted to follow in its ways and so our life in the world is a battle we have to wage every moment between the person that we are in Christ-- and our flesh.
The Bible says that we are to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”  Abstaining from what we want does not come naturally to us and most of us don’t have a lot of practice doing it. There is some new toy that we want and so we get it. We eat until we groan in pain. We sleep in rather than exercise.
And because we never tell ourselves “no” in the small things--we have little ability to say “no” when it really matters—when our flesh is tempting us to sin.
The struggle to live as servants of God begins is in our Old Adam and too many Christians have given up and given in when it comes to saying “no” to their flesh.
This is no small thing. The Bible calls it a war and that is exactly what it is! There will be a victor and there will be a loser. Either your passions will win out and drag you body and soul into the fires of hell-- or the Christian in you will win out and you will go to heaven and be raised on the last day.
Those are the only two possible outcomes of the spiritual battle each of us face within our hearts and out in the world and against the devil to live as servants of God and so we are called upon by God to abstain from the temptations of the flesh for the sake of our eternal salvation—but also for the sake of those around us. The Bible says:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
The battle that we must wage against our own sinful flesh has eternal consequences not only for us—but also for unbelievers around us.
In other words, when we walk out of this place on Sunday we have a solemn responsibility to live as Christian people so that those who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior can come to know him BY how we live our lives in their presence.
You and I both know that, from Sunday to Sunday, we don’t really have all that many opportunities to speak about Christ.
Now, we have many, many more than we actually make use of!  But most of our interactions with others don’t provide us with many opportunities to talk about our faith. And yet we have limitless opportunities to live out our faith in our daily lives.
When we are kind to the people who serve us in the various stores around town—when we are patient with our co-workers—when we are helpful to our teachers—when we are generous to those in need—there is a powerful witness to Jesus whom we serve.
And that matters! There are plenty of people in our world today who are ready to think the worst about Christians and believe the worst about Christians—plenty of people who reject our values and who doubt our core beliefs.
We can talk to them—we can try to answer their arguments—we can be advocates for our rights as Christians in the public square (and there is value in all of these!) but there is one thing that is absolutely unassailable in making the case for Christ—and that is the power of a sincere, genuine Christian life.
The Bible says that you are to live in such a way that people see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. This means that on the day of our Lord’s return, there will be people going to heaven who give glory to God because they saw how we lived our lives—learned about what we believe and why-- and came to faith in Jesus.
That is the high calling of the Christian life—that in our daily lives we reflect Jesus so that others can see him in us. That is certainly to be true in our lives as citizens in this nation. The Bible says:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
There are any number of governmental entities and individuals that have a claim upon our lives as citizens and so we pay our taxes and serve on juries and obey the speed limit.
As Christian citizens we are free to advocate for less government and fewer regulations and lower taxes, but when it comes to the laws that are on the books and the government officials who enforce them--the Bible says that we are to be subject to them.
God expects us to do good rather than evil for our nation and its government and our fellow citizens because that has a positive effect on those around us—silencing their complaints and concerns about having Christians as fellow citizens because of how we live our lives.  The Bible says: Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
There is an honor due to everyone given their place in life. To the young woman who checks us out at HEB it is common courtesy. To the tradesmen who does work for us there is there prompt payment of their bill. To doctors who care for us and educators who instruct our children there is appreciation. Honoring everyone means that treat others as we would like to be treated.
Our attitude towards our fellow Christians goes beyond that. The Bible says that we are to love the brotherhood—that is, our fellow Christians and especially the members of our own congregation. It is a shameful, sinful thing when Christians despise and mistreat their fellow Christians for we are brothers and sisters in God’s family.
And when it comes to our relationship with God, the Bible says that we are to fear him. It’s an interesting word that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to use when it comes to what we are to render to God.
In other places, the Bible talks about loving God and trusting God and obeying God-- but here the Holy Spirit says that we are to fear God. And so we should!
That is because these are words are written to us with the expectation that we will obey them. They are not left to our own discretion. They are not optional for the Christian.
God expects us to recognize those places in our life where we have fallen, repent of them immediately and receive the forgiveness of Jesus and then begin to amend our lives by following his will for his servants that we find in his word today. The Bible says:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
            It is easy when reading through these words to simply see them as a list of rules that we are to follow that govern our conduct in the workplace and in the nation and in the church. And they are indeed commands of God and God expects our obedience!
But there’s more to it than that. These words about love and respect and obedience are words about Jesus and how he lived his life:  doing good to those who mistreated him—enduring sorrows while suffering unjustly—dying for our sins.
Jesus’ life of love and obedience and respect did not earn him worldly success and great fame and wealth—his life of love and obedience led him to the cross—and it will lead to hardship for us too. But it also the only road that leads to eternal life.
That is why the Bible says that it is a gracious thing in the sight of God when we suffer for doing good and endure because that kind of life identifies us with Christ and his life. 
And so we live our lives here on earth as Jesus lived his life—as servants of God—speaking our Father’s words and doing our Father’s will and walking in the steps of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jesus Is the Good Shepherd


John 10:11-16 Of all the images of our Savior in Holy Scripture perhaps none is so dearly loved as that of the Good Shepherd.  That’s as it should be for the image of the Good Shepherd tells us much that is true about what kind of Lord and Savior we have in Jesus—one who is strong and gentle and loving.  This image tells us much that is true about what kind of people we are—weak and defenseless and prone to wander like sheep who go astray.
            As we reflect on God’s Word to us today we hear these truths taught by Jesus who tells us that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life and takes it up again for us—the Good Shepherd who knows us and provides for us—the Good Shepherd who came into the world to gather a flock for himself.
            Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”   In a choice of three things, advertisers list them in terms of good, better, best—good being the worst.  But when God uses the word “good” it is something altogether different than what the world means.
When God created the heavens and the earth he looked at all he created and called it “good”.  It was good beyond anything we can comprehend—perfect beyond comparison!  That is the sense in which Jesus is our Good Shepherd and his goodness is found in the fact that he gives his life for the sheep.  The goodness of the Good Shepherd is grounded in the cross.
            At one point in Jesus’ ministry, as he was surrounded by a crowd, the Bible says that he looked at the people and had compassion on them “because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd”. 
That’s true of all of us.  We are born into this world as weak and helpless as newborn lambs and throughout our lives we are harassed by enemies deadlier to us than wolves are to sheep:  the enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  And just as sheep have no natural weapons with which they can protect themselves, so we are helpless in the face of these enemies.
            But our Good Shepherd wasn’t helpless—he had compassion on us and saved us from our enemies.  His holy life took the place of our sin.  His death on the cross was Satan’s defeat.  And his resurrection changed death from the end of the road for us to the doorway to heaven.  Just a few verses after our text, Jesus the Good Shepherd says,
“My Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”   
In ancient Israel it was not unknown for shepherds to be killed protecting their sheep and the stories of their bravery were told and retold.
            But the death of the shepherd was not good news for the sheep because it let them fall victim to the same enemy that had just destroyed the shepherd.  A brave (but dead) shepherd was no help to his sheep. 
Jesus showed that he is the Good Shepherd, not only because he lays his life down on the cross to defeat our enemies, but because he takes it up again in his resurrection.
            We have in Jesus Christ a living Shepherd who rules this world for us—for his flock—for the sake of his sheep—a living Shepherd who intercedes for us and helps us—and orders all things in heaven and on earth for our eternal good, to see us safely to our heavenly home.  Jesus the risen Shepherd promises, “I am with you always even unto the end of the age.” 
            How different is this kind of crucified and risen Shepherd than all the pretenders that came before or since.  Jesus says that,
“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”     
These words of Jesus would have resonated with the people of that day.  In many ways, Israel’s long, sad history was the story of the failures of the shepherds who should have cared for them.  Their kings, and judges, and generals, and even their religious leaders showed themselves to be merely hirelings who were in it for themselves.
            Especially in Jesus’ day the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the law had little concern for the flock that the God of Israel had entrusted to them.  Instead they were interested in politics, and power, and prestige.  They were in it for themselves.
            Not much has changed.  All around us we see those who are claiming to have our best interests at heart—politicians and pundits and even preachers—and yet they are in it for themselves-for what they can get out of us.  And when it comes time for them to show their true colors through sacrifice and selflessness—they turn and run.
            How different is our Good Shepherd from these hirelings!  Jesus knew just exactly what his life would entail—the suffering, pain, and death—and yet Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and the cross-- because he knew it was the only way for us to have the rich, abundant, eternal life that God wants us to have.  He did it because he knew what was best for his flock—and he still does.  Jesus says,
“I am the good shepherd.  I know My own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…”   
Despite the fact that there are over a billion sheep in his flock Jesus has the individual number of our hairs counted, so intimately does he know us.  He knows when we rise up in the morning and when we rest at night—he knows our thoughts and dreams and hopes and struggles and fears. 
And because he knows us perfectly and personally—he knows exactly what is best for us and will always provide it to us.
            When Jesus spoke these words he was headed to Jerusalem with other Jewish pilgrims to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in which the Israelites would remember God’s care for them during their desert wanderings:  how he provided them with water and light and food. 
And as Jesus traveled along he proclaimed:  I AM the bread of life—I AM the living water—I AM the light of the world—and I AM the Good Shepherd.  He wanted the people then to know, and he wants us to know today, that he graciously and generously provides for his flock—just exactly what we need, when we need it—because he knows us individually and personally.
            And not only does he know us—he wants us to know him and have fellowship with him.  Jesus says, “I am known by my own.”    Jesus wants us to know him just like sheep know their shepherd—to listen to him and follow him and come to him in faith when he calls. 
Our Good Shepherd wants us to know his voice and to respond to his call and to recognize his presence and so he speaks to us in his word and gives himself in Holy Communion so that we can have life in his name.
            And the life that he has come to give to us and the fellowship that he offers to us he wants to share with the entire world.  Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”   
Jesus is not content that the number of sheep in his flock remain static and certainly not for it to decline.  The Bible says that he “is not willing for any to perish but that all should come to repentance.”  
            Throughout his earthly ministry we see the Good Shepherd adding to his flock--reaching out to those caught in sin like the woman at the well and Zaccheus the tax collector—reaching out to Romans and Samaritans—reaching out to those who denied him in his hour of need. 
In the parable of the lost sheep Jesus explains how the Good Shepherd is not content with 99 out of 100 but seeks the one lost sheep to bring it into the flock as well.
            We need to have exactly the same attitude when it comes to those who are not yet a part of the flock of the Good Shepherd.  Jesus has shed his life’s blood for them and the greatest tragedy that exists in the world today is when someone for whom Christ died goes to hell not knowing the one who loves them like a shepherd loves his little lambs.
            His mission of salvation has been entrusted to us and any hesitancy to invite others to become a part of his flock because of their sinful life- or because of their ethnicity- or because they have wandered from the flock- should be set aside because our Good Shepherd wants them to be a part of his flock with us so that there would be one flock and one shepherd.
            What a comfort it is for us to hear once again that in Jesus Christ we have a Good Shepherd—one who shows his unfailing love for us in his death and resurrection—one who knows us intimately and invites us to know him in the same way—a Good Shepherd who enriches our lives on earth by inviting his to share in his mission of seeking and saving the lost.  Amen.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Resurrection!


The Resurrection!


Mark 16:1-8 I have been by the bedside of many people who have died and I have never gotten used to it.  There is nothing quite so final seeming as seeing that the chest rise and fall for the last time—the breath to be breathed out and not another taken in—to see the spirit leave the body behind.  We know nothing more clearly in that moment than this is not the way it is supposed to be.
But there is not much time to linger on those thoughts.   There is much to do when a loved one dies—and that helps us in our grief—it keeps us busy and distracted from the pain of our loss. 
A grave must be purchased and a casket.  A time of service has to be arranged and guests have to be fed.  Clothes for the deceased have to be chosen.
And over the next two or three days, the pain of our loss is kept just a bit at arm’s length and even the worship and the meal with the family help in this regard.  But at the grave, when the last words are said, the last hugs and promises of prayer are made—there is nothing left to do but leave our loved one in the grave.
That is where we were left on Friday evening.  The faithful women heard Jesus commend himself into the hands of his Father, they watched Jesus breathe his last, the saw him give up his Spirit and die—just like all the others who had come before him.
They took his body from the cross, did what they are were able to do, covered him in a burial shroud and watched as he was placed in a tomb.  They heard an enormous stone being rolled in front of it.  They saw a seal placed on it, and guards posted so that no one could steal his body and say that he had been raised from the dead as he promised. 
With those sights and sounds, there was nothing left to do—not one thing that they could change—and they left their loved one in the grave and returned to their homes to observe the Sabbath.  The Bible says that:
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 
            Until our Lord Jesus Christ returns the story of these faithful women will be told and well it should.
These women were his faithful disciples.  They had supported him throughout his earthly ministry.  They were witnesses of his miracles.  And unlike the twelve disciples, they did not flee from his side when he needed them the most, but remained with him every moment as he suffered and died on the cross.
That we know what those terrible hours were like for our Lord, that we know the words he spoke there at the cross, is because of these faithful women who heard and saw it all.  And now, very early in the morning on the first day of the week, as soon as they woke from sleep and before the sun came, their only thought was to finish doing what was a necessary for a decent burial in that day and time.
And yet, for all their faithfulness, they were just like the disciples and everyone else in Jerusalem—they had NO expectation that they would be dealing with anything else other than a corpse.   None.
This, despite the fact that Jesus had told them and the disciples and anyone who would listen, just exactly what would happen—that he would go to Jerusalem, be abandoned by his friends, rejected by his people, put to death on the cross by his enemies and rise again three days later.
He said that, just as it was for Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days, so it would be for him and that this was the only sign that mattered.  He stood by the graveside of Lazarus, proclaimed himself the resurrection and the life and showed what that meant by raising him from the dead.  Suffering, betrayal, rejection, death and resurrection was what he preached again and again, they heard it again and again—they saw it all play out just as he said in the week preceding week and yet early in the morning, on the first day of the week, the third day they traveled to a tomb expecting a corpse.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is a lesson for us in this.  Jesus is the God of kept promises.  He is the way and the truth of the life.  He does not lie and we must not let our many religious duties keep us from the one thing needful and that is actually believing what Jesus says and believing that Jesus has the power to fulfill his promises.  The Bible says that:
They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 
            If there was anything that that these faithful women had come to know over the course of the days leading up to this moment was their helplessness in the face of forces greater and more powerful than themselves. 
There was nothing they could do to change the minds of those who rejected Jesus.  There was nothing they could do to make the disciples the men they should have been.  There was nothing they could do to make Herod and Pilate give Jesus justice.  There was nothing they could do to stop the soldiers from driving nails into Jesus feet and hands and putting a crown on his head and stabbing him with a spear. 
All of that helplessness came to a head as they traveled to Jesus’ tomb early that morning on the first day of the week, only to be reminded somewhere along the way that an enormous stone had been rolled into a carved groove in front of the tomb and there was no way that group of women could roll it out of the way. 
We can only imagine how they must have felt—their frailty and powerlessness exposed one last time.  But if they had only reflected just a bit they would have remembered other times when the weakness of people was no impediment to the power of Jesus. 
When he was surrounded by 5000 hungry people, the disciples could not imagine how to feed so many and yet in the hands of Jesus a few fish and a few loaves were more than enough.  When he was out with his disciples on a stormy sea and they thought they would all drown Jesus spoke a single word and the seas were calm and they were saved.  Blind eyes and deaf ears and lame legs and flows of blood and a crooked back all gave way to the power of Jesus. 
And here at the tomb, the faithful women were about to learn that lesson one more time:
And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.  And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”  And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

            One of the questions in the Catechism is this:  What is the basis of our faith and life in Christ?  In other words, what is the foundation of our faith?  What is necessary for Christianity to be true?  People always want to say:  the crucifixion—and God be praised that the preaching of the cross is so central in our church.  But that is not the answer. 
Many thousands of people were crucified by the Romans.  In fact, not just Jesus but two others with him were crucified on Good Friday.  But only one of them and only one of those thousands was raised from the dead and that is Jesus.
Paul says that if Christ was not raised we Christians are the worst kind of fools.  He says that he delivered to the church that which is of first importance that Christ was raised form the dead. 
We do not worship and serve a good man or wise teacher or worthy example.  We worship and serve a living Lord who has powerfully conquered death and the grave—not just for himself—but for us too. 
That is why the resurrection of Jesus matters so much!  It is the fullness of his saving work and it is the Father’s stamp of approval on all it and it is why our Lord will, beyond any shadow of a doubt keep his promise to us that because he lives we also shall live.
The words and promises of our Lord Jesus Christ are faithful and true.  He did go to Jerusalem to suffer and die just like he said that we would but he also rose from the grave just as he said and it is this fulfillment of all his saving work that is our guarantee that we can take him at his word and build our life upon it.
The tomb was opened that morning, not so that Jesus could get out—but so that the faithful women (and we through their eyes) could look inside and know that Jesus has been raised.
They saw a grave where Jesus had been placed now empty.  The place in the rock where he had been laid on Friday, abandoned.  They saw the cloths that they had used to wrap his body left behind.  They saw the burial shroud placed over him no longer needed.
That is what was objectively true about Jesus’ grave early that morning on the first day of the week.  That is what people just like us saw and reported.  And that is what, by faith, the Holy Spirit wants us to see as we reflect on our own passing.
There is no one who has ever lost a loved one who does not, at least at some point, consider their own mortality.  We know that the care and concern we have extended to a departed loved one will also one day be extended to us by those we love when we pass from their presence on this earth.
But the angel’s testimony will also be spoken of us on the last day:  they are not here for they have been raised!  That is the Good News that we are to take to the world just like the faithful women that first Easter morning.  Amen.