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Summer Schedule


Starting on Sunday, June 5th, St. Mark will be switching to its summertime schedule.

There will be one service on Sundays at 9:00 am.

Bible Class for the adults and Sunday School for the kids will be held at 10:20 am.

We will return to our two service schedule on Sunday, September 11th.

We Are Christians

shaking handsI once had a neighbor and friend whom we invited to come to church numerous times.  On more than one occasion he made this joke: ‘I don’t know if you want me to come to your church; the walls might come crumbling down the moment I walk in.’  Now, he’s the kind of guy who was always cracking jokes about this or that, but I never found this one to be all that funny.  I’m pretty sure that he was just trying to avoid really talking about God.  I would be willing to bet that deep down inside, he was kind of afraid to go to church.  Because for him, going to church meant being a Christian, and that meant living up to a certain set of standards, ones which he had not met in his life.  So based on his own words, he just didn’t think he was good enough to be a Christian.  And if there was any bit of seriousness to his joke, he was afraid of what God would think of him if he ever came into his presence.

lawbreaker1In a way, he was right.  Because here in 1 Corinthians God says this: Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?’  Sometimes God can be quite direct with his words, can’t he?  Those who are not obedient to His Word, who ignore his laws and go their own way, who indulge in behavior that He doesn’t approve of, they don’t get to go to heaven, period.  And the same rules apply to all people everywhere.  It doesn’t matter where you were born, what your family life was like, how hard or how easy your days have been.  If you have been wicked, have done what God says you should not do, you will not receive the glories of paradise.

That’s kind of important information to know, don’t you think?  This isn’t like having to sit in a time out for a few minutes.  It’s not even like sitting in a jail cell for a few years.  This means being apart from the goodness of God forever; being banished to the fires of hell.  So, we might want to know just what this wickedness is, right?  Thankfully God tells us: ‘Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’

whewSo, what do you think of when you hear that list?  Are you breathing a sigh of relief?  Are you thinking, ‘Whew!  Thank goodness I am not like one of those people.’  It would be easy to think that, just so long as you are not having sex outside of marriage; aren’t bowing down to an idol; aren’t cheating on your spouse; aren’t selling your body for money; aren’t believing the lie that embracing and engaging in homosexuality is just fine; aren’t sneaking into your neighbor’s house at night to take their stuff; aren’t spending all your time thinking about how you can get more money; aren’t getting yourself hammered every other night; aren’t spreading false gossip over town and aren’t conning people out of their property.  Based on that you could say, ‘See, I’m not a wicked person, so I am definitely going to heaven.’

But then I think back to my former neighbor, and the kind of life that he lived.  He wasn’t like this either.  Honestly, he was a great neighbor; helpful and kind, friendly and generous.  So why in the world was he so nervous about coming before God?  Because in his heart he could tell that there was more to all this than these most obvious offenses.  And there is more; much more.  You may have not indulged in the passions of the flesh, but have you banishedever had a wandering eye and a lustful heart?  I may not have a constant longing for more, but have I truly been content with what I have?  You may not be a drunkard, but have you ever had one too many?  We all may not be bowing down to graven images, but have we ever made certain things in our lives more important than the Lord?  It may not be as obvious as we think it is with some people, but we too are wicked.  We, too, do not deserve to inherit the kingdom.  We only deserve what our wickedness has earned: banishment from the kingdom, and death, forever.

So, was my neighbor right?  Should we not even be here right now?  Are these walls soon going to start crumbling, burying us in a heap of rubble sent by the wrath of God?  No, the Lord doesn’t work that way.  He says he will wait until the end of the world or the end of our days to dispense justice.  So maybe that means we have some time?  Maybe we should all commit ourselves today to turning things around, to being really good people, to start doing all the things that God wants us to do?  Here’s an idea: let’s make a deal with God right here and now that if he will just spare us from hell we promise to start being honest-to-goodness Christians.  We will dedicate our lives only to good things like feeding the poor and helping the homeless.  We will stop doing any of that wicked stuff we were doing before.  Wouldn’t that be enough to get us back into the kingdom?  I mean, isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?

be perfectWell, that’s part of what it means to be a Christian, but God sets a much different standard than we do.  He says be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.  God doesn’t allow for any kind of makeup work.  He doesn’t offer us the option of earning extra credit.  He cannot allow any wickedness into his paradise.  Our holiness score has to be 100.  We have to hit the bulls-eye every time.  There are not deals to be struck, no bargains that can be made.  On our own, we can do nothing.  On our own, we are doomed.

So I ask again, was my friend right?  Is there no hope?  Is there no reason to even try to be a Christian because it is just impossible to do?  Well, what does God, through the Apostle Paul, say to the people of Corinth, who, by the way, were the most wickedly debaucherous people on the face of the earth at that time?  ‘And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’

1 cor 6.11The Christians in Corinth had the most awful backgrounds that you could possibly imagine.  All those disturbing things that Paul listed before, that’s what they did.  And not just every once in a while, but all the time.  Yet, what did God do with them?  Of his own free will, he washed them, cleansing them of their sins.  For no other reason than his mercy, he sanctified them, setting them apart as holy.  And in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he justified them, he declared them to be not guilty.  In other words, he made them Christians.

How could this be?  Had they done something amazing to gain his favor?  Had they somehow become perfect enough to earn his grace?  No, they had done nothing. But the Lord Jesus Christ, he had done everything.  You see, God’s justice was not going to be appeased by a few meager works of mortal man.  The punishment for a world’s worth of disgusting and disturbing sins had to be carried out.  But no mere man could take it all.  So he sent more than a man.  He sent his Son.  And so on the cross Jesuredeemed-and-forgivens became every idolater and every adulterer; on that cursed tree he became all prostitutes and all drunkards; on Calvary’s hill he became the most vile offender this world has ever seen, receiving all the sins of the world.  And through the sacrifice of his death, the payment of his blood, the giving of his life, the world was washed, sanctified and justified.  His resurrection from the grave proved it.  His ascension to the right hand of his Father confirmed it.  And when the Spirit caused the Corinthians to believe it, they became Christians.

So yes, there is hope; hope for all mankind; hope for me; hope for you.  For this is what it means to be a Christian.  It is not about what you do.  It is not about how perfect you have to be.  Instead it is about what Christ has done for you, and how perfect he was in winning salvation for you.  That is why our religion, our belief, our faith, bears His name; for everything rests on him.  The name of power-in-the-nameJesus makes your baptism a cleansing flood; for it is his redemption which is poured out upon you.  The name of Jesus makes His Word a proclamation of salvation; for it is his forgiveness impressed upon our hearts.  The name of Jesus is what makes us not guilty in his sight; for it is his righteousness that comes to us by faith.  It does not matter what we were, because through Jesus we are washed, sanctified, and justified.  Through Jesus we are, Christians.

It saddens me to think of my friend and former neighbor, who never did come to church.  It saddens me to think that perhaps he is living his life, still make those same jokes, still avoiding a real connection with God, still fearful of what that would mean.  I pray that someone might hear the same jokes that I did, might be bold enough to invite him to church, and the Spirit would move him to come and hear what Jesus has done for him; and what life with Christ can mean.

I am willing to bet that there are people you know that are just like him. People who have a sordid past.  People who think they have done too much wrong.  People who think there is no way they could truly become a Christian.  They need to know the truth.  They need to know that they don’t have to be afraid.  So tell them.  And if you’re not sure how to do that, why not tell them a story?

woman tearsTell them about King Manasseh and how he sacrificed his own sons in fire, and yet, the LORD still loved him and washed him and brought him back.  Tell them about the woman weeping at Jesus’ feet, how she lived a promiscuous and immoral life, and yet, Jesus still loved her, and sanctified her.  Tell them about those contemptible Corinthians, how much guilt they had accumulated, and yet, Jesus still loved them, and justified them.  And once you have shared with them these amazing tales, that’s when you tell them: ‘This is what Jesus has done for you.’  For that is the Gospel.  That is the power of salvation.  That is all that is needed for them to be changed; for them to become something new; for them to become something amazing.  That’s all they need to become what we are and what we desire all people to be: washed, sanctified and justified Christians. God grant it.  Amen.

God Has Come To Help His People

Luke 7.12Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”  Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.  They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.   (Luke 7:11-17)
You would be hard pressed to ever see a funeral procession as sad as this one.  Of course, every time a life is lost there’s more than enough sorrow to go around.  But this one was different.  The hurt was more palpable.  The pain was more profound.  I bet you could have seen it in the people’s faces, how devastating it was.  It wasn’t just because of the body that was being carried in the coffin; it was also because of the woman who walked in front of it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: a child dying before his parent.  It’s supposLuke 7.1ed to happen the other way around.  It seems so unfair even to us watching from a distance.  How much more to this grieving mother, now left without her only son?  She would never forget the day that baby came forth from her womb.  She was expecting there still to be many more.  But all at once they had disappeared, like feathers blowing in the wind.

Yet, what made this moment sting all the more was the fact that this wasn’t her first time walking through the gates of Nain with tears streaming down her cheeks.  This mother was already a widow.  She had taken this walk of death once before, with her husband being carried behind her.  How could she not feel completely empty inside? The man with whom she had become one flesh was no more. And now the new life that they had produced was gone too.  Can you even begin to fathom the depths of loss and anguish?

Still the pit of despair goes further down, for how was she supposed to get along now?  Not just emotionally or spiritually, but physically.  It was her husband who provided for their needs, and when he had died it was supposed to be her son who carried the load.  Now, there was only her.  She had no way of earning a living, no way of protecting her home, no means by which to keep a roof over her head and food on the table.  I’m sure that other people in town would do their best to help, as much as they could.  But to rely solely on the charity of others is a scary way to live.

So together the people walked with her, to lay her son to rest.  In those times when someone died, you buried them that same day. There was no waiting for family to come to town, no calling the funeral home, no planning for this or that. The finality of it all was ever so striking; so quick, so raw, like death itself.  The people knew how crushing this had to feel, which is why so many of them were there.  Together as one they walked and they mourned.  That’s just what you did.  Yet, how could they not feel so helpless as the enemy of death claimed yet another victim.

widow nainIt just so happened, however, that as this group was heading out another was coming in.  No doubt those who were entering could tell what was happening and knew better than to interrupt such a emotional moment.  Except for one man; the one who was leading the way.  He stepped forward, as one who knew exactly what was going on.  He drew near to the widow, compassion written all over his face.  It was as though he knew how awful this death had been, and how much the woman was hurting.  Deep down inside his heart was breaking, too.  And then he spoke, saying very calmly but also firmly, ‘Don’t cry.’

I wonder what the people of Nain were thinking as they heard this?  ‘How could he say that?  Why would he say that?  What good is that going to do at a moment like this?  How can you tell someone who has been run over by a chariot of grief to just turn off her faucet of tears?  Did he think that with just a wave of his hand he could make things better?  Did he think that with just a couple of words he could make all the hurt go away?’  But before any of them could say or do anything, he became even more bold. He dared to put his hand on the coffin and stop the procession.  Then he spoke words that none of them could have ever expected.  ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’

raising+the+deadWhat sort of nonsense is this?  Who does this guy think he is?  The boy wasn’t asleep.  He wasn’t unconscious.  He wasn’t suffering from an illness from which he could eventually recover.  He was dead.  His heart no longer beating; his lungs no longer breathing; his brain no longer functioning.  Dead.  You don’t tell the dead to get up.  It won’t work.  It can’t.  But I wonder if some of the people there that day, having heard some of what Jesus could do were saying to themselves, ‘What if…?’  What if this impossible dream could become a reality?  What if this widowed woman could get her son back?  What if this man really could take on death, and win?  I wonder how many hearts were pleading within, ‘Get up! Come on, get up!’  And then, all at once, he did.

I imagine that there must have been quite a gasp that came from the crowd.  I can just see many of them falling to their knees in amazement.  This couldn’t be happening, and yet, it was.  The dead man began to talk.  The dead man got out of the coffin.  The dead man embraced his mother.  The dead man wasn’t dead anymore.  All because Jesus spoke and the dead listened.  No man could have done this.  No mere mortal could have pulled off this miracle.  This Jesus was something more.  And so they said, one to another, ‘God has come to help his people.’

gym workoutDo you ever stop and think about much money we spend trying to prevent death?  Not just the doctor appointments and the rehab sessions and the medicine and the surgery.  But how much money we raise for cancer research hoping that one day we’ll find a cure. How much money is spent on healthy food and drink, on fitness classes and gym memberships.  How much time and effort and advertising dollars go into telling people to stop doing these things and start doing those.  Laws being passed to forbid people from drinking too much soda in one sitting.  Why do we do all this?  Because we want to delay the death that we all know is coming.

But if we know it’s coming, then why do we try so hard to avoid it?  Because deep down inside we know that death isn’t natural.  Death isn’t the way things are supposed to go.  God tells us in Romans what deep down we already know, ‘The wages of sin is death.’  The sin that had lived in that woman and her husband and her son and still lives in you and me.  And this sin is something that God despises so much that it separates us from him.  It’s something so terrible that it makes the Author of Life hide his face from us.  And so the moment we enter this world crying we begin the process of dying.  This is why when we head out to the cemetery it breaks our heart, because we know what it is that brings us to that end.

Luke07v11to17_2010But the good news is that it breaks the heart of God as well.  Why do you think Jesus was there in Nain, in that exact place at that precise moment?  Because it broke his heart to see his children suffer and he was determined to do something about it.  And his heart feels and breaks the same way, for you.  No matter what it is you’re going through, no matter how great your sins are or much you deserve to have him turn his face away, he doesn’t.  He looks at you – not in anger or hatred – but with a forgiving love that is determined to take the pain of sin and the sting of death away.

funeral hugBut maybe that doesn’t seem like much.  After all, most of you have been there, in that parade line, making your way to the casket to give condolences to a grieving family.  And you know that no matter how much they appreciate you being there, no matter what kind words you attempt to say, there’s still something rather helpless about it all.  At the end of that funeral there are people going home with less than what they had before.  And no matter what you say to them, nothing’s changed.  But this is exactly why trusting in Jesus even in the face of death is never hopeless.  Because Jesus does what we cannot do.

Even though you won’t see Jesus at a funeral, even though you won’t hear his voice raising up the person who died, even though you weren’t there when Jesus raised this young man, you can say exactly what they did: ‘God has come to help his people.’  Even though you weren’t there, you know that every miracle he did showed that Jesus was God, with power over life and death.  And you know that even though Jesus never sinned and never needed to die, he let himself be nailed to the cross to give his life and pay the wages of sin.  And you know that since Jesus rose from the dead, he certainly has power to raise others from the dead, too.  But the most important thing to know is that Jesus did all this for you.  That God didn’t just come to help his people; he came to help you.

risen brideThose two crowds that met on the dusty road outside of Nain are still walking in this world.  There are people who still live in the fear of death.  And by God’s grace, there is a group following the Lord of Life.  I think at times we’ve walked in both, but in the end we know to which we truly belong.  So what can you say to someone who’s facing death or dying?  What can you remember in your heart of hearts when you are under that shadow?  Remember Jesus.  Remember and tell about the way he sees our sorrow and pain.  Remember and tell about how he still loves us.  Remember and tell that even though the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And above all, remember and tell that one day soon, even if we’ve already died, that same Jesus will come back and speak these blessed words that all believers will hear: ‘My dear friends, I say to you, get up!’  And we will.  Amen.

Great Faith

Centurion FaithWhen Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.  He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.  (Luke 7:1-10)

trust-fallI can still see it in my head to this very day.  It was during my first year at the seminary, and one of our professors wanted to share a living illustration of what it means to have faith.  He got a volunteer from the class, Brandon, who was going to do a ‘trust fall.’  That’s where you close your eyes, cross your arms in front of you, and fall backwards.  You trust that the person or people behind you are going to catch you.  But the twist was that the professor wasn’t standing behind him, but rather, right next to him.  Not the optimum place you want your helper to be.

I can remember Brandon nervously laughing and even saying, ‘You’re supposed to be over there.’  He was afraid to start falling because he wasn’t sure the professor would get there in time.  Eventually he did trust the professor’s word and began to fall back.  As he did, the professor quickly jumped behind him.  And that’s when the moment came.  I don’t know if he overestimated his own ability to catch a fully grown man, or, if he underestimated how hefty Brandon would be.  But when the moment of impact came, there was a very loud ‘OOF!” as both of them went crashing to the ground.

Now, the point of the whole demonstration was to illustrate how we trust in the LORD even though we can’t see him.  Even though he doesn’t always appear to be where we think he should be, still, he is worth trusting. Because, when we need him to help us; when we need him to catch us; He will always be there.  But on that day, we got two lessons for the price of one. Yes, God can be trusted in even when he is not seen, but when you trust and rely on your fellow man, many times, they fail.

ooofWhat are those ‘OOF!’ moments in life that you have had; where it felt like you had been punched in the gut as someone let you down?  Perhaps it was your spouse, whom you trusted to share all things with you, but then they withheld their love.  Perhaps it was a parent whom you trusted to watch over you, but then they didn’t catch you as you fell. Perhaps it was a friend whom you trusted with a secret, but then they betrayed that trust by telling others.  Sometimes it’s accidental, other times it’s malicious; but either way, it was trust that was left wanting by the weakness or wickedness of man.

What’s sad about these experiences is how much they affect our trust in others.  Once you have been let down, you really don’t want it happening again.  If it happens to you a few times, you start being on guard against it.  It doesn’t take much then to start second-guessing all the people around you.  Does the doctor really know what he’s talking about?  Will my co-workers actually get the job done right?  Will my kids, my wife, my husband do things the way I want them done?  It’s kind of a crummy mindset to have, but one we almost have to maintain, just to avoid being let down.

trust meBut at least we know that God is trustworthy, right?  At least we can be sure that He won’t let us down, right?  I mean, we have come to know him as one who always keeps his Word and never lets his promises fail.  So, of course, we always live with complete trust in Him.  Or do we?  It’s one thing to trust in the Lord when everything makes sense, when everything seems to be under control.  It’s entirely another to do so when everything is crumbling down around you.  When the bills are paid and food is on the table, trust is easy to come by.  When the budget it tight and one more expense could break you, you’re not so sure anymore.  When the family is getting along and the marriage feels strong, trusting in an unseen God is no sweat.  When you’re at each other’s throats and the marriage feels like it’s unraveling, you wonder what good trust will do.  When you are healthy and loved ones are happy, trust flows easily.  When you see death approaching and loved ones that are suffering, how could you trust anyone to handle all of this?

Yet, the Scriptures tell us, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding’ (Prov. 3:5). But how can we do that when our understanding is all that we’ve got?  We would never trust without a reason.  We would never trust without proof.  Blind trust so rarely turns our well.  So how in the world can we place all of our trust in a God whom we cannot see, cannot grasp with our hands, cannot wrap our arms or minds around?  How can we base everything simply on his words?  Because his Word is enough to trust.

gods_son_centurionThe centurion knew a thing or two about trust.  He was a soldier, after all.  More than that, a leader of 100 soldiers.  Trust for him and his men was crucial.  He knew what it meant to place complete trust in the guy standing next to you.  Without this total reliance, men would die.  He had seen the power and strength of man; how far it could take you; how much it could get you.  For him it had brought power, money, comfort and respect.

But then there came a day when all of this wasn’t enough anymore.  A treasured servant of his was near death.  This man was more than just a slave, he was like a member of the family.  And now he was drowning in a sea of pain.  This was a situation that was out of his control.  He had probably called all the doctors he knew; had them try everything in their power and knowledge to help.  But nothing else could be done.  All his power and money and influence…it wasn’t enough.   And so he realized he had to put his trust in something else, something bigger, something greater.

Maybe you think that was easy for him.  After all, it does say that he heard of Jesus, which means he knew all about the miracles he could perform.  So of course he would turn to this magic man as his last and most desperate hope.  But if that’s all that this was—a Hail Mary, a shot in the dark—then why did Jesus say that his faith was so great?  Because the trust that he displayed required an attitude that isn’t so easy to come by.

Listen again to what he said, Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof…But say the word, and my servant will be healed.’  Clearly this centurion knows Jesus; and what he’s all about.  He knew it wouldn’t matter to Christ how impressive he looked.  He knew that his good deeds weren’t enough to erase the bad. He knew that he had nothing to offer him.  But that didn’t stop him, because he had also heard about Jesus’ love.  So that gave him such complete trust that all he needed from him was a promise.  ‘Just say the word, Jesus.’  He trusted that Jesus was willing to use his almighty power to help him, and so, just a word from his Lord would be enough.

When we compare our trust to this centurion we can all find reason for shame.  For how often in our lives have we withheld our trust in the LORD and gone looking for hope in all the wrong places?  Yet, God has given us the promise that we can always find him in his Word; that when we go to God’s promises, there we will find what we truly need.  So how do we do that when it all seems like too much?  When there is so much pain in your body or sorrow in your heart that no simple word can fix it?  How do get great faith like this centurion?  We remember who Jesus is, and what kind of word he speaks.

Father forgive themJesus once had an existence free from all pain and sadness, with angels who sang his praise, with so much power that he could just say the word and the entire universe came to be.  But it wasn’t enough.  There was something else that he wanted, but it ran away from him. The crown of his creation, Adam and Eve, had turned its trust away from him, and he wanted to bring them back.  So he spoke words of promise to a frightened man and woman.  He spoke the word Immanuel – God with us – so that his people would know they weren’t alone.  In the fullness of time he came down from heaven and walked upon this earth.  He spoke and more amazing things happened – the blind saw, the lame walked, the storms stopped raging.  When they nailed him to the cross he said, ‘Father forgive them,’ to show that sin can’t erase God’s love.  As he died he said, ‘It is finished,’ to show that God’s love does erase our sins.  And when he rose from the dead he said, ‘Peace be with you,’ to let us know how complete his forgiveness is.  These are the words that Jesus speaks.  Words of love; words of power; words of salvation.

exercise faithIt is through these words that great faith comes to us.  And Jesus wants you to have just as strong a faith as that centurion.  So he bids us to work our faith like a muscle.  He wants us to do some lifting…lifting your Bible off the shelf and hearing him speak to you.  He wants us to do some running…running to his house for worship to hear his Word proclaimed and see his salvation given.  He wants us to do some training…training your heart and mind to be like his as you are taught the Word in Sunday School and Bible Class.  He wants us to go on a diet…cutting out all the spiritual junk food that this world is offering and feasting only on Him who is the Bread of Life.

Do you want your faith to be as great as it can be?  Do you want your trust in the Lord to be as amazing as the Centurion?  Do you want to remain strong in the face of all doubts and difficulties?  Do you want to have the fullest of confidence in the Lord your God?  Then listen to the voice of your Savior always, and He will make your faith great.  Amen.

Rejoice In Everything

romans 5.3Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  Romans 5:1-5

At the start of the Thirty-Years War, Martin Rinkart was one of four Lutheran pastors in the city of Elienburg.  As the years of the war dragged on, conditions within the city became worse and worse.  Because Eilenburg was a walled city, many refugees fled there hoping to find security and safety while the war raged on the outside.  But soon the city became overrun with people and the living conditions became appalling.  Armies pillaged the fields nearby and food became scarce.  Plague and sickness spread quickly through the massive crowds.  The people started dying in droves.  Pastor Rinkart soon became the only pastor left in that city as the others died or left.  Death became so prevalent that he would conduct as many as 50 burials a day.  In the year 1637, he buried over 4,000 people, including his own wife.

Martin_RinckartYet, through it all, Pastor Rinkart was and remained a prolific hymn-writer.  And in the midst of this war and all of this devastation, he wrote these famous words; ‘Now thank we all our God; with hearts and hands and voices.  Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.  Who from our mother’s arms, has blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.’

Who could find such words to speak, much less to sing, when experiencing such horrors?  Who could ever even think of such things when sorrow and death are all around you?  What in the world could he feel thankful for?  Where would those in his world find reason to rejoice?  It sounds impossible; it sounds like something out of a fairytale, doesn’t it?  If you knew someone who could speak of such joy as he was going through such loss, you would wonder if they had lost their mind.

But Pastor Rinkart, along with his faithful members, were able to sing those words in truth.  Because even as they went through a war that ravaged their lands and destroyed their lives, they were able to look beyond them, and see peace.  Not peace between the nations that battled.  Not peace between the armies that fought. No, they fixed their eyes on a greater peace, one that superseded all pain that they felt, one that overwhelmed all sorrows in their heart.  They saw and they knew peace with God through Jesus Christ.  And for that they would give thanks.  Because of that, they would rejoice in everything, even in their sufferings.

boy-with-crutches-sits-near-a-doorThat is quite a strange thought to our ears, isn’t it?  Rejoice in our sufferings?  Who thinks like that?  ‘Hooray!  I just broke my leg!  I can’t wait to wear a cast for the next six weeks!  My friends are all being mean to me at school.  Awesome!  My boss is being a real jerk to me.  Yes!’  That’s not how we react to suffering.  That’s just not normal.  No, when we are hurting we get mad, wanting someone to blame for our hard times.  Or, we get depressed, wondering to ourselves, ‘Why does this have to happen to me?’  Or, at best, we grin and bear it, in a way accepting it, but still not being too happy about it.  That’s the normal response.

But Paul says here that this is not what we do.  No, we Christians respond differently.  We can actually be happy in our sufferings, or as the Greek expresses it, boast as we go through sufferings, because we know what they bring.  From suffering comes perseverance; the learned skill of enduring through trying and troubled times. And from this perseverance comes character; a quality within us that is now ready to face more sufferings, even if they are worse than before.  And from this character then comes hope; the conviction within us that is sure that whatever comes our way, it will not destroy us, but we will overcome it.

Romans 5.4Does that sound like a rejoicing moment to you?  I mean, I guess it’s alright.  But it really doesn’t sound all that enjoyable.  We know that some blessings come through the difficulties that we face; that we are built and strengthened by the hard times.  But that doesn’t make them fun to go through.  That doesn’t make them easier to experience.  And no matter how much we might try and tell ourselves that this rough stuff is for our good, it’s not going to suddenly make our hearts leap for joy as though it’s the greatest thing ever.  Really, it feels like more of a root canal.  It’s not pleasant, but it has to be done.  No one truly rejoices in the midst of a painful procedure, not matter how much good it will do.

So what is wrong with us?  Why aren’t we looking at things the way that Paul says that we should?  Why aren’t we ready to sing ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ at every waking moment of our lives?  Well, it’s all a matter of where you are laying your hope.  When we go through suffering we go looking for some kind of release, some kind of peace.  And where is the first place that we often look?  Is it not to ourselves?  We look inwardly to solve the problem, to ease the pain, to find some peace.  And on top of that, we focus on the here and now, concentrating on where stand in this life.  ‘What’s going to make me feel better right now?’  With these things as our primary hope, it is no wonder that we find rejoicing so hard to come by, for this world is full of pain and disappointment.

But making matters ever worse is that we are ignoring the real peace and hope that could truly bring us joy.  This life is not the be all, end all.  Our days spent on this planet are not what matters most.  There is a greater relationship that supersedes all others, a life to come that lasts far longer.  Our connection to the Triune God has more value and more importance than anything else we can think of, because it lasts for all eternity.  But how do we treat it?  Too often it is of secondary concern, a tool only used on Sundays, if that. It becomes something that we assume will always be there, while we spend our time on more pressing earthly things.

This is why we find peace lacking in our lives.  This is why we come up short on hope.  This is why we find no joy in our suffering.  For we have neglected and ignored the only true source of all these things.  We have too often set aside the one true God in our day to day lives and treated him with scorn.  And for these sins we deserve to be treated by him in the same way; cast aside and ignored forevermore.

Holy_TrinityBut the Almighty did not want to be enemies with us.  He did not want our relationship with him to be so broken.  He did not want us to live without hope.  So his love for us was spurred into action, with each person of the one God doing their part.  The Father send forth his gift to us, the finest treasure the world has ever seen, his only begotten Son.  This perfect and innocent Son then went forth into this world, never losing sight of what truly mattered, but always doing what his Father, our Father, wanted.  Through his holy life we are counted as ones who have always done what is right, as straight A students in the classroom of heaven.  But this was not all, for this Son also went to the cross, receiving the scorn of our sins and shame of our guilt, and so won for us forgiveness by his death.  And then the Holy Spirit came, pouring out the unsurpassed love of God into our hearts, planting faith in Christ, the sure and blessed hope that we are not guilty; that we are justified.  Through this we have real hope.  Through all this we have peace with God.

peace-with-godDoes this not amaze you?  Does this not blow your mind?  You have peace with God!  You haven’t done anything to deserve it.  You haven’t been so squeaky clean that God couldn’t help but like you.  If anything we have done everything in our power to drive him away from us.  But here we stand, not under his wrath, but wrapped lovingly in his grace.  Here we stand, with the certain hope of heavenly glory with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forevermore.  Does that not fill you with joy?

You see, that is the secret to rejoicing in everything, even in our sufferings.  It’s not that we are happy to feel anguish or that we go looking for pain.  Rather, this peace is just so huge that it makes everything else tiny in comparison.  Even though I must suffer through mockery, insults, and mistreatment in this life, I will still rejoice for I have peace with my God and Savior who always treats me well.  Even though I must suffer through the pains of aging and the trials of sickness, I will still rejoice, for my God has promised me that through these hardships he will bless me and bring me closer to him.  Even though I must watch my loved ones suffer, even though I will know the sorrow of loss and death, I will still rejoice, for I have the hope of everlasting glory, where my loved ones will hurt no more and where I will know peace forever.

Means of GraceThis is the joy that we have for every day of our lives.  And this is the confidence that you have, Maci, as you embark on the long journey that we call life.  The Triune God has given to you all that you will need.  He has given you grace in your baptism, marking you as his child.  He has given you peace through his Word, filling you with his Spirit.  He will soon give you strength through his Supper, cleansing your conscience from all guilt.  In all this he has forgiven you, justified you, and saved you.  And so you have joy.

But this does not mean that life will be easy.  It does not mean that your days will be pain-free.  Along the way you will experience loss, you will go through hard times, you will struggle and you will shed tears.  But as you experience all these things, you will also rejoice.  For each and every day you will hold on to the hope that does not disappoint, the love of God that has been poured into your heart.  Remain steadfast in what you have learned.  Continue to grow in the grace and forgiveness of Christ.  Remain focused on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Then you will rejoice in everything.  Amen.

The Spirit of Truth

In the name of him whose words are Spirit, Truth, and Life.  Amen.  The Word of God we consider today is the Gospel from John 15.  Since it is just a couple of verses, why don’t we hear those words again.

Ὅταν ἔλθῃ ὁ παράκλητος ὃν ἐγὼ πέμψω ὑμῖν παρὰ τοῦ πατρός, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας ὃ παρὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκπορεύεται, ἐκεῖνος μαρτυρήσει περὶ ἐμοῦ· καὶ ὑμεῖς δὲ μαρτυρεῖτε, ὅτι ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἐστε.

manscracthing-headDid that sound strange to you?  Did you understand at all what I was saying?  Were you able to properly translate that from Greek to English?  I hope that didn’t sound like I was showing off, because that wasn’t my intent.  Rather, I merely hoped to give you a taste of what it’s like to hear something that doesn’t make any sense to you.  But doesn’t it strike you as odd that what you just heard me read is the very Word of God, and yet, you probably didn’t get a thing out of it?  I read is as clearly as possible.  I even practiced it ahead of time to make sure that I got the pronunciation right.  But still, it probably went in one ear and out the other.

So, I’m going to read the verses again, this time in English.  But as you listen to them, I want you to imagine that you don’t have faith.  Imagine that you don’t know a thing about Christ; that you know nothing about God; and someone shares these words with you.  ‘When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.  And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.’

How in the world would you make sense of that?  How could you possibly decipher what any of it means?  ‘Who is this Counselor?  Is that like a therapist?  And who is this Father?  I’ve already got a dad.  And what is the Spirit of truth?  Is that like a ghost?  And why is he going to testify about Jesus?  Can’t Jesus just testify about himself?  And what’s this business about me testifying?  I don’t even know what’s going on right now, so how can I testify about anything?’

truth senseNow, if you were going to share Jesus with someone, you probably wouldn’t start with this passage.  But at the same time, how much sense does the Gospel really make to our human minds? Just listen to some of Peter’s words on that first Pentecost.  ‘… [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead…’  ‘So…you’re telling me that God wanted this Jesus guy to be put to death, even though he didn’t do anything wrong. And somehow this death pays the price for every wrong thing that I’ve ever done. And you want me to believe that God then raised Jesus from the dead. Riiiiiight…’

Confused-Sign-Post-Rounded-Corners1Yet, it’s not just that this message goes against all human logic. The problem actually goes much deeper than that. Scripture teaches us that by nature, we’re enemies of God, hostile toward anything and everything he says.  It also says that we are spiritually blind, not able to understand even a fraction of God’s truth.  And to top it all off, it tells us that we are spiritually dead on our own.  And what, do you suppose, a dead person can do?  That’s right, nothing at all.  So, of course, the message of a bloody cross and an empty tomb would have no impact on us at all.  Unless, there was someone who could open our eyes.  Unless there was someone who could bring us to life. Unless there was someone who could testify the truth to our hearts.  Only then could we ever believe it.

The first time the disciples heard these words they were about to go through the darkest days of their lives.  Jesus was about to go to his death, a journey that wouldn’t fully make sense to these men, even after he rose from the dead.  So, if you were Jesus, knowing what was coming, knowing all the hurt and confusion that would soon afflict your brothers and friends, what would you want to give them?  How about someone who would reveal to them why this was happening?  How about someone who would stand by their side to encourage them through the dark times?  How about the Holy Spirit, who would do all this for them, and more?

Spirit truthEven though Jesus has ascended to the throne of his Father, he is still speaking these words.  And he is speaking them to people who desperately need to hear them.  Have you been through some dark times in your life, with hardships that rocked you down to your core?  Have you had those moments where nothing seems to make sense?  Have you ever just felt so confused, longing for answers that seem impossible to find?  Do you find yourself in one of these conditions right now?  If so, then what would you want Jesus to send you to help?  How about someone who would stand beside you to encourage you through the dark times?  How about someone who could reveal to you why things are the way they are?  How about someone who would testify to you about your Savior, so that you could know the truth and be set free from all that troubles you?  How about the Holy Spirit, who can do all this for you, and more?

pentecostOn the Day of Pentecost, Christ’s promise was fulfilled.  The visible signs were amazing – the sound of the wind, the tongues of fire, the speaking in different languages. But the greatest miracle is what was happening in people’s hearts.  The Spirit filled the hearts of the disciples, and these formerly fearful men were now preaching the good news with boldness.  And through that glorious message the Spirit then entered into 3,000 hearts that had been hardened by sin and transformed them into hearts that believed.  The Holy Spirit brought the truth, and the truth then set them free.

So, do you think the spirit was done working once the day of Pentecost was over?  Do you think Jesus’ promise was only meant for that one moment, only for those people?  Not a chance!  For the Spirit himself declared through Peter, ‘The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.’  The Holy Spirit is still calling, calling out with the truth.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Who is the Holy Spirit?

And what has he testified to you?  He has testified the truth about sin: that we all have it, that we all commit it, offending our Holy God with our unkind words, our unclean thoughts and our unloving actions.  He has testified the truth about hell: that it is real and terrifying and is the ultimate punishment for sin.  But he has also testified about Christ: that he is the Son of God and Son of Man; that he lived in righteousness to credit holiness to your account; that he suffered the eternal torments of hell on the cross as he died innocently in your place; and that he rose from the grave to prove that the payment for sin is complete.  And so he then testifies to the truth about heaven: that it is real and is your eternal home through Christ alone; that you don’t have to do a thing to earn your way there; and that it will be filled with joys everlasting.  And as he testifies to you this powerful truth, your heart is changed, your eyes are opened, you are brought out of the death of unbelief and into the life that is faith in Jesus Christ.

Dove stained glassBut still this work of the Spirit is not done.  Because after performing such a miracle in your heart, do you think he’s not going to do everything in his power to keep it there?  He is the eternal Spirit of God, and so his testimony is not going to end.  So when you have questions, the Spirit will testify, confirming in your heart what you believe.  And when you have doubts, the Spirit will testify, reminding you of God’s goodness that always works everything for your eternal good. And when you are hurting, the Spirit will testify, pointing you to God’s love for you that will never fade away.  And when you are struggling, the Spirit will testify, giving you strength to endure all the troubles that come your way.  And when your faith is challenged, the Spirit will testify, pointing you to the solid rock of his truth, from which you will never fall away. This is why your Savior sends you the Counselor: to testify to the truth about Jesus, that you may remain in Him forevermore.

Simone ClarkeSimone Clarke was one of over 37,000 runners who entered the London Marathon in 2012.  What made Simone unique was that she was an epileptic who typically suffered about four seizures a day.  She needed someone willing to train and run with her so that she would have help if she had a seizure while running.  Her good friend, Tally Hall, took up the challenge.  But none of their training could truly prepare them for what was to come.  The first seven miles of the marathon were just fine.  But at mile eight some stomach pain triggered Simone’s first seizure.  Tally caught her and laid her on the ground and for 30 seconds she lay there, unconscious.  And then, remarkably, Simone woke, got up, and continued running.  Over the next 18 miles Simone had 19 more seizures, each time collapsing and losing consciousness.  And each time, Tally caught her, protected her, helped her back up and they continued. The top runners that day finished the race in just over two hours.  Simone took 6½.  But in the end she finished, all because she had her helper, her counselor by her side.

That’s kind of cool story, isn’t it?  But I can think of one even better.  Do you remember the lowest spiritual moment of your life?  The time when you felt the most disconnected from God, the most guilty, the most lost?  The time when you didn’t think you could keep going anymore.  How in the world did you ever get out of that place?  How did you ever find the strength to proceed, the encouragement to continue?  The Spirit of Truth came to you.  Your Counselor came to your side and encouraged you with his Word.  He filled you with his power by showing you your Savior.  He brought you out of the depths with his love and his grace. He brought you peace, and light, and comfort that you could not find anywhere else.

Pentecost16That makes quite the story, doesn’t it?  The kind of story you’d want to share…especially when you know that the Spirit can do this for anyone.  That’s why Jesus said, ‘And you also must testify…’ I know that it’s a bit disconcerting to think about sharing your faith with someone new.  But whenever you feel those fears or worries, remember this:  The Holy Spirit is by your side, and he will give you the words.  The Holy Spirit is by your side, and he will give you strength.  The Holy Spirit is by your side, and he has the power to take any broken heart and make it whole again in Christ.  Think of those people in your life that you know are hurting, that you know are feeling lost, that you know could use some comfort.  Testify to them the truth about Jesus, and then be amazed as the Spirit does his work.  Amen.

Love One Another

loveoneanotherWhen he was gone, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.  My children, I will be with you only a little longer.  You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now; Where I am going, you cannot come.  A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  –   John 13:31-35

There was once a 22-year-old guy named Kurtis who worked at a supermarket.  He had a crush on Brenda, one of his co-workers.  So he did the normal thing and he asked her out.  She said ‘no.’  She had two kids at home and couldn’t afford a babysitter.  So he offered to pay for the sitter.  Seeing that he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer, she reluctantly agreed.  When date night came around, the babysitter canceled, so Brenda wanted to cancel too.  But Kurtis was smitten, so he suggested, ‘Why don’t we bring the kids along?’  Brenda then introduced him to her kids.  First there was her cute little daughter…and then came her son, in a wheelchair, having been born with Down syndrome.

kurt warner marriageBrenda was sure that Kurtis would soon turn around and leave, just like her ex-husband had done.  But he didn’t.  Instead helped load up the kids and off they went to dinner and a movie.  All evening long, whenever her son would need anything, Kurtis would take care of him. Even when he had to go to the bathroom, Kurtis picked him up and took him.  A year later, Brenda and Kurtis were married and Kurtis adopted the children as his own.  A couple of years later Kurtis would play in the NFL, win the MVP and the Super Bowl.  Most people know Kurtis by his nickname, Kurt.  As in Kurt Warner.  Brenda says that she knew that very first night that she was going to marry him.  She could tell that Kurt loved her because of the things he did for her and her children.

Jesus says that you can know who his disciples are by looking at how they treat one another.  And that treatment is summarized in one, simple, four letter word: Love.  But what does that mean, really?  What does it look like to love someone else?  If you asked a kindergartener, they would probably talk about giving someone a hug and picking flowers for mom.  If you asked a teenager, they would probably speak of someone who is there for you when you’re feeling down.  If you asked your average adult, they’d probably talk about not judging and going the extra mile.  And if you inquired of an elderly person, they might speak of loyalty and dedication to the end.

But what does Jesus mean when he talks about showing love and displaying love?  It’s clear that he must mean something more than what we would normally think of, because he calls this a new command.  But that seems strange because the LORD had already given this command many years before: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Lev. 19:18) You’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?  And you can bet the disciples had as well.  Jesus talked about it numerous coffee redbulltimes.  But here on the night before he would die, Jesus is giving his children a whole new look at love that is drastically different from anything they have heard or seen before.  As dramatic a change as switching from decaf coffee to Red Bull. ‘As I have loved you,’ he says, ‘so you must love one another.’ 

Think about it.  Loving other people the same as you love yourself is no easy task.  Yes, you want to love your family, but sometimes they drive you nuts.  Yes, you try to be kind to your next door neighbor, until they do something to tick you off.  You don’t want to be rude to the telemarketer on the phone, but he just interrupted your dinner.  You don’t want to become enraged at the lady in the car in front of you, but she just cut you off.  It’s hard to love these people, but at least we try, right?  So maybe we don’t LLLOOOOVVVEE them, love them.  But we don’t hate them.  We aren’t mean to them.  And that helps us convince ourselves that this is good enough.

high_barBut then there’s the new command.  As much as Jesus has loved you, that’s how you should love others.  Do we get just how high this raises the bar?  It means loving without excuse and without exception; loving with all of your heart and with no hesitation.  It means being willing to sacrifice everything, even for those who hate you.  Can you imagine being willing to go to prison in place of the guy who robbed your house?  Can you fathom taking the electric chair for the guy who murdered your wife and kids?  That’s the kind of love that Christ had for us, which means that’s also the kind of love we are to have for one another.

If you’re like me you’re probably thinking, ‘Wow, that’s extreme!  Does it really have to be so severe?  Can’t we lower the bar to something a bit more realistic?’  Okay, let’s try that.  How about not cursing at the guy who nearly crashed into you and instead praying that he gets home safe?  Still too high?  Alright, how about not mocking that co-worker who annoys you and instead defending her when someone else does?  Still can’t make it?  Maybe we should take it down to just the family and friends level.  What about always assuming the best and not the worst about the words and actions of your fellow members here at St. Mark?  How about forgiving your spouse completely when they make a mistake?  Always giving your children the attention and time that they need?  Remembering to pray consistently for all of your family?

You do realize that we can’t lower the bar anymore, right?  We’ve hit the bottom.  There’s nowhere left to go.  Which means that we haven’t even come close to following this new command of our God and Lord.  The pitiful display of love in our lives has not been pretty, and neither is the result.  In the battle to love one another we have lost for more than we have won.  And because of that, God says that we deserve no love from him, but only hell.

Jesus heals ear‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’  We hear these words and they so easily can crush our souls with guilt and shame.  And yet, at the same time, they give us hope.  For in them we hear a declaration of the Son of Man that cannot be changed, a testimony from the Son of God that cannot be undone.  ‘As I have loved you…’  In the very moment that Jesus spoke these words he was shining forth his love for the world, and for you.  Even though Judas would come to betray him, still Jesus spoke loving words wanting to win him back.  Even though his enemies came to do him harm, still his loving hand reached out to heal the servant’s ear.  Even though the Pharisees and Pilate wanted nothing to do with his truth, still he lovingly told them who he was.  And even though he had done nothing to deserve any punishment, in love he took on death and hell so that every sinful soul could be set free.  He loved when he did not have to.  He loved when it seemed impossible.  He loved to make up for all the love we don’t have and to forgive all the love that we did not show.  He loved enough to save you.

The story is told, years ago, of a father who took his two kids to the mall one day.  The older, Helen was, eight and Brandon was five.  It just so happened on that day outside the mall there was a petting zoo.  For a small fee they would watch your kids as they played with the animals while you shopped.  Sounded great to Dad and to the kids.  So he gave each of his kids a quarter, which was the price of admission the last time the zoo came around.

kid petting zooA few minutes later as Dad was looking at some tools, Helen walked up to him, crying.  ‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘it cost fifty cents.  So, I have Brandon my quarter because the Bible says that, if you love someone, you have to do things to show them.’  So Dad took his daughter back to the petting zoo.  And as they got close, they saw Brandon going crazy petting and feeding all the animals that Helen loves.  Dad did happen to have another fifty cents in his pocket.  But you know what he did?  Nothing.  He just stood outside the fence with his daughter as they watched Brandon have a great time.  He never gave her the fifty cents and she never asked for it.  Together they learned a valuable lesson.  Loving like Jesus loves will often involve sacrifice.

When we ponder anew the pure and precious love of our Savior Jesus, it sparks within us a new understanding of what it means to love.  And what comes with it is a new desire to carry it out, to show it, to live it, saying, ‘Yes, Lord Jesus, as you have loved me, I want to love others, all others.’

mom daughter hugSo how do we go about it?  Well, it starts in the home, as fathers love their families by gathering them around the Word.  Appreciation and thanks flow freely from one family member to another recognizing what everyone does to make their family work. Chores are done, honesty prevails and prayer abounds.  Love then continues out the door as neighbors receive a smile and a wave.  New neighbors are warmly welcomed.  The elderly get assistance when they need it, and even sometimes when they don’t.  Love moves on to the workplace as we put in our best effort.  Co-workers are helped, even when they don’t ask for it.  Love flows even more at church as everyone is warmly welcomed.  Forgiveness is shared and received.  Gossip and angst are nowhere to be found as we take everyone’s words and actions in the kindest possible way.  Prayers are constantly spoken for others and their families.  Work is done in the Lord’s name and those responsible are thanked time and again.  Then love flows out from this place as the good news of Jesus is shared with the lost.  Not just in our organized evangelism efforts, but in the lives of each one of us.  And soon it becomes obvious to everyone we know and everyone in the community, we are disciples of Christ Jesus.

love one anotherI know that this sounds a bit like a dream, like a fantasy world that will never be realized.  But the more that we have the love of Jesus in our hearts and on our minds and on our lips, the more that this dream can become a reality.  Christ’s love is a powerful thing.  It can move us to things that we never even dreamed of.  Just think of what blessings could be given!  Imagine what good could be done!  So let us be renewed by how Jesus has loved us, and let us love one another.  Amen.

Power to Change

First person narrative sermon based on Acts 9:1-19

I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  It just didn’t make sense.  It was amazing enough that I, Ananias, of all people, was receiving a vision from the Lord.  But what God was telling me to do, what he was telling me he had done…it was more than my brain could comprehend.

Saul_Persecuting_ChristiansWhat was of such great importance up here in Damascus that God felt he needed to speak to me directly?  Oh, just the minor matter of Saul coming to town.  You know, the guy who stood there giving approval to the stoning of Stephen.  The guy who threw men and women in prison for following the Way.  The guy who persecuted Christians to their death.  The guy who was determined to do everything in his power to oppose the name of Jesus.  That scary dude?  Yeah, he’s here.

But I wasn’t receiving this vision because the LORD was trying to warn me.  His words weren’t, ‘Hey, get out of town before he kills you, too!’  Instead it was, ‘Why don’t you go pay him a visit?  Don’t worry, I let him know you’re coming.’  Seriously?  This is what you want me to do?  This is the man you want me to go meet with?  Lord, I know that you know everything, but you seem to be forgetting why he’s here.  He hates you.  He hates me.  He’s already harmed I don’t know how many of your people and he’s here to do more damage.  I know you said he’s praying.  I know you said he’s been blinded.  But are you sure he isn’t trying to pull a fast one on us?

That’s what I told myself in the moment.  But deep down, my thoughts were a bit different.  It wasn’t just that I was scared.  It wasn’t just that I was nervous.  Rather, it was because I didn’t believe that Saul could really be changed.

holier than thouIn my mind he was a lost cause.  He wasn’t like one of those degenerate and immoral types who didn’t want God to ruin all his fun.  He was way worse.  Someone who sinfully abuses everything without a care in the world might eventually hit rock-bottom and realize how lost they are.  But Saul was the exact opposite.  He was the pinnacle of morality…and he knew it.  He was one of the best Bible students from one of the best Bible schools.  He zealously followed every one of God’s laws down to the very finest of details.  He took his God very seriously and had no doubt in what he believed.  That’s why he made it his mission to rid the world of Christians.  In his mind they were blasphemers offending the holy name of the LORD.  So he was sure that imprisoning and killing the disciples of Jesus was a mighty fine thing to do.  It’s one thing to rebel against God because you just don’t care.  But Saul was rebelling against God fully convinced that he was doing him a favor.  How could you possibly change a man like that?

But if you were to delve even deeper into my heart you would have found an even more dreadful thought.  I didn’t think that he deserved to be changed.  Do you have any idea how much we feared him?  Do you realize how much blood he had on his hands?  He was killing our brothers and sisters!  And from all that we heard, there was no remorse, no sadness in what he did.  How could a man like that ever deserve the goodness of God?  How could a man like that ever receive mercy from the LORD?  Let him stay blind, in his sight and in his heart!  Isn’t that what his sins deserve?

Saul JesusBut then I heard what had happened.  I heard what Jesus, my Lord, had done.  No, he didn’t attack his enemy with a lightning bolt or cause the earth to swallow him whole.  Instead, he changed his enemy into a friend.  He changed Saul from an adversary, into a brother.  It wasn’t the blinding light from heaven that did it.  That just got his attention.  It was Jesus’ words that made an impact.  ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ he asks.  These attacks against Christians were the same as attacking Christ himself.  But Saul didn’t quite get it yet.  So he was told plainly, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’  And all at once Saul came face to face with the resurrection.

paul-prayingFor three days he was left in darkness to ponder and pray on what this meant.  He had hated Jesus because he thought him to be a liar and a blasphemer.  And so he despised everyone who dared to proclaim this Nazarene to be the Christ. But now this prophet who he thought was dead, was very much alive.  Which meant that all the things his disciples were saying about him might actually be true.  That he was something more than just a man.  That he was something more than just a rabbi.  That this Jesus really was and is God’s Son.  That he is no liar, but is the truth.  He is no blasphemer, but is in fact the Christ of God.  His resurrection from the grave could only mean one thing: Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah and Lord.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Saul during those three days.  It’s no wonder that he didn’t eat or drink.  His world had been rocked to is core.  He couldn’t possibly know who he was anymore.  And just think of the amount of guilt that weighed upon his conscience.  How fervent is prayers must have been!  How passionate his pleas must have sounded!  How could he ever hope for the LORD to look upon him with favor ever again?

But hope came when God told him that I was being sent.  Sure, it would be nice that he could see again.  But there was something else he needed far more. He needed forgiveness.  He needed grace.  It wasn’t easy for me to go, knowing what he had done to so many others.  It wasn’t easy laying my hands on him in kindness when he had used his hands for so much worse.  But isn’t this just the kind of God that we have; one who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that they turn to him and live?  Isn’t this exactly what he’s been doing since the Garden of Eden: forgiving his children’s wickedness and remembering their sins no more?  Isn’t this the miracle that God so often works: calling out to the worst of sinners and changing them in ways that are beyond belief?  Isn’t this what he has also done for me?

Ananias-baptizes-SaulSo I went to the house of Judas on Straight Street to bring to Saul the gift of God.  I called him brother, for that is what he now was.  He was no longer a blasphemer and persecutor and violent man.  Through the word that Christ had spoken to him, he was a changed man.  Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, his sins were removed from him as far as the east is from the west.  This was true the moment I place my hands on him.  It was then given to him again as the waters of Baptism washed over him.  He was now a new creation, a child of God, a beloved brother of Jesus, yes, even, a saint.  Because our Lord and Savior is just that powerful, and just that loving.

This is something that you, as followers of Christ must always remember: the power of the resurrection to change.  Perhaps, like me, you have known people in your life that you have thought could never be converted.  Maybe it was someone like Saul who is so confident of their own goodness that they don’t think they need Jesus.  Or maybe it was someone like the thief on the cross who turned so far from God’s Law you can’t imagine them ever turning back.  Even though you know how powerful God is; even though you know that His Word is dynamic enough to enlighten even the darkest heart, still you look at some folks and think they are just too lost to ever be found.

Or maybe it’s not others that you think are incapable of change, but rather yourself.  There are those certain sins you can’t seem to get away from.  That temper that ends with you saying hurtful things; that pride that makes it so hard to admit you were wrong; that lust that entices you to look at things and think of things you should not; that greed that causes you to love more the cash you can keep in your pocket than the gifts you can give to your King.  You know such things are an offense to God and you wish to rid them from your life.  But you’ve failed, time and again.  And so you wonder if these temptations can ever be conquered.

But do not ever forget this: what Christ did for Saul, he has also done for you.  He has changed you from enemy to friend.  He has converted you from an adversary power for lifeinto a brother or sister.  He has spoken his Word and stated ever so plainly: ‘I am Jesus. I am Jesus who lived a sinless life and then counted my perfection as your own.  I am Jesus who took the punishment of hell on the cross to give you heaven.  I am Jesus who shed his blood to cover your every sin of thought, word, and deed.  I am Jesus who rose to life to give you life forever in heaven.  I am Jesus who poured the Holy Spirit into your heart through Baptism, and so I declare you to be a child of God, a new creation, yes, even, a saint.  I am Jesus, and by the power of my resurrection I have changed you, both now, and forevermore.’

Because of Jesus you can change; you can live in a new way.  Because the power of his resurrection did not end on that first Easter.  It continues on as your living Lord reigns in your heart.  He is there to help you fight against your old selfish heart.  He is there to help you turn from temptation.  He is there to help you tamp down your temper, swallow your pride, let go of your greed and get rid of your lust.  He is there in the fullness of his grace to make you a new creation each and every day.

lovesinnersAnd if this miraculous change has come to us, then it can also come to others as well.  If the power of the resurrection can melt Saul’s heart of stone, that whose heart can’t it melt?  There is no one that is so far gone that Jesus cannot bring them back.  There is no one who is so entrenched in their ways that Christ cannot change them.  What made Saul so perfect as the Lord’s chosen instrument was that he knew the depths of God’s grace and the heights of his power.  And that’s what makes you excellent instruments as well.  You have seen what he can do. You know that he can do it again.  So there is no reason for us to ever hold back.  There is no reason to ever think that change is impossible for anyone.  There is only reason for hope and trust and action because of this undeniable fact:  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.