Don’t Be Like Me

richman“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’  “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’  “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’  ” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” Luke 16:19-31

You don’t know my name.  In fact, almost no one knows my name.  But you know me, and you know my story.  You just heard it from Jesus, and chances are, you’ve heard it many times before.  You identify me as ‘the Rich Man,’ the same way that I identified myself.  But now, that’s not really true about me anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, I was rich.  I wasn’t just a part of the 1%; I was at the top of the One Percenters.  And like a lot of people do, I thought that meant I had it all figured out.  But I’m here to tell you that I was wrong.

lazarus-dogIt should have hit me the first time that I ever laid eyes on Lazarus.  There he was, laying at my front gate.  A grown man whose body was covered in gross sores and who looked as though he had just bathed in garbage.  I can’t say I really know how he go there.  I’m guessing somebody got tired of taking care of him and figured I had more than enough to do the job.  So they dumped him off hoping that I would show him some kindness.  But I didn’t want to bother with him; didn’t care one bit what happened to him.  Every once in a while, I would toss him some scraps from the table, telling myself that was good enough.  Only now do I realize that I wasn’t even close.

How easy it would have been for me to take him in?  How simple it could have been for me to share my food with him?  Instead of letting dogs tend to his wounds I could have sent a doctor his way.  Instead of sleeping outside I could have let him stay in one of my many spare rooms.  I could have done so much more for him, but my selfish heart wouldn’t even consider it.  I could have helped in so many ways, and maybe, he could have helped me too.  I really wish he had.

You all know me as ‘the Rich Man,’ but that’s really not accurate.  I have existed now for over 2,000 years.  But I was only rich for, maybe, 75 of them.  Once my final breath left my body, my riches left me too.  So that means that I was only rich for 3% of my life.  And the longer that time goes on, the lower that number goes.  Rich does not describe me at all, because I have been poor in hell for over 2,000 years.

hand-over-flame-7117813I don’t know what people are saying about hell these days, but I never thought much of it.  But oh, how I wish I had thought of it more.  Just imagine, if you could, placing your hand in the flame of a simple candle and holding it there for 30 minutes.  Imagine dealing with that kind of constant pain.  Those thirty minutes would feel like an eternity, wouldn’t it?  But at least, there would be an end.  But for me, you see, this pain doesn’t end.  And it’s not just one hand, but both…and my feet…and my chest…and my head…and my…everything.  It’s been over 2,000 years, and it’s not stopping.

But that’s not the only pain that I feel.  Every day my emotions are crushed because I get to see what I missed out on.  There is Lazarus – poor, dirty, abused and neglected Lazarus – sitting comfortably in the arms of father Abraham.  His pain is all gone.  The sores have all been healed.  No longer is he curled up against the gate.  Instead, he stands with his arms outstretched receiving blessings as countless as the sands on the seashore.  Every day I have to see that and know that I can never get there.

the-parable-of-lazarusOn top of this, there is no mercy in hell either.  I’ve tried asking.  I called to Abraham, ‘Please, I’m in pain, I’m in agony.  Don’t you feel sorry for me?  Help me!’  But he told me, ‘Merciful is all that God was with you on earth.  You think you deserved all that wealth?  You think you deserved your good health?  God gave you those things so you would realize how good he is to you and then seek him all the more.’   You don’t know how horrible it is to live without God’s mercy, because you’re all receiving it right now.  But trust me, once it’s gone you realize how awesome it is.  But during my days on earth, I just didn’t see it.

I have had plenty of time to think about what went wrong, to think about how I ended up in this horrible place.  I noticed how many of my formerly rich friends were down here with me while poor Lazarus was up there.  So at first I thought, ‘It must have been because I was rich.’  It just made sense: rich on earth, poor in hell; poor on earth, rich in heaven. But then I noticed plenty of other people beside me who I used to step over and ignore like Lazarus.  Then it hit me: I’m not in hell because I was rich.  I’m in hell because being rich was the most important thing to me.  And you can feel that way whether you have lots of money or no money at all.

hell-for-the-richThe only difference between the rich and the poor in hell is that the rich had money on earth and the poor didn’t, but they still defined themselves by it.  They believed it would solve their problems, that it would bring them more joy, that it would give them the security they longed for.  And so they became obsessed with it.  Some worked hard to get it.  Others expected people to feel sorry for them and give it to them.  But in the end both defined themselves by what they did and did not have, which left no room for a relationship with God.  And now, their greatest hope is not a bigger home or a better clothes, but only a single drop of cool water so that for just one second their tongue won’t be on fire.

risesfromdeadI feared for my brothers while they still lived. I didn’t want them to make the same mistakes as me.  I demanded that Abraham send someone from heaven to let them know what they didn’t have.  But you know what he said?  ‘I don’t need to send anyone.  They already have what they need.  They have Moses and the Prophets.  They have the Word of God.’  I used to think that wasn’t enough, that something more miraculous was necessary.  After all, I had heard that same Word and look where I ended up.  But then I realized, I never really payed attention to it.  I never really listened to it.  The warnings against selfishness, greed and pride.  The calls to find true and lasting peace in the LORD.  It was all there, but I ignored it.  And that is why I’m suffering down here, and Lazarus is happy up there.

he-humbled-himselfLazarus heard Moses and the Prophets talk about a man who did for all people what I refused to do for even one person.  A man who became poor—even poorer than Lazarus—so that we could become rich—even richer than me.  A man who emptied himself of all that he had to fill us up with what we needed.  A man who chose to hang on a tree so that our sins would not condemn us.  Lazarus heard this Word of the Lord, and believed it.  That’s why I never heard Lazarus complain about his place in life.  That’s why I never heard him say that life was unfair because of what he didn’t have.  He had Jesus, so he didn’t need anything else.  He had Jesus, and so he knew he would have everything in heaven forevermore.

The reason that Jesus told you my story is because he doesn’t want you to end up where I am.  He knows how easy it is to focus so much on the here and now and to forget about the hereafter.  He has seen again and again how mankind loves to define themselves by the abundance of their possessions.  And living in your world today, how easily does it happen?  You have chariots that move without horses and travel ten times as fast, metal birds that fly you around the world, little plastic cards that that let you buy whatever you want, homes that stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, little boxes that let you talk to people thousands of miles away.  You have things that people in my day never would have dreamed of!  But if it is this stuff that gets you going in the morning, if it is holding on to this stuff that brings peace to your heart, if very little matters more to you than using this stuff, then you are putting yourself at great risk of ending up like me.

You know what the saddest part of being me is?  God doesn’t even acknowledge my name.  I’m just some anonymous rich man, a stranger to him, a nobody.  But he calls Lazarus by name, just as he calls yours as well. Jesus once said, ‘I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.’  And now I see how true that is.  For those who know Jesus, regardless of your situation in life, no matter what you have or what you don’t have, no matter if you are rich like I was, or poor as my-nameLazarus; Jesus sees you, he knows you, and he loves you.  He knows how you feel, knows what you need, and will give more in eternity that you can ask or imagine.

Don’t be like me and define yourself by the things you hold now.  Be like Lazarus and be defined by your Lord and Savior who in mercy calls you by name, who in compassion fills you with the riches of his grace, and who in love will carry you home.  Amen.

Who Is Your Master?

captain-phillipsA few years ago there was a movie that came out called Captain Phillips.  It was a film inspired by the true story of the hijacking of a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean in 2009.  Now I’ve never seen this movie, but, thanks to the trailers, there is one part that I feel like I’ve seen a thousand times.  Perhaps you’ll remember it too.  It comes at the moment when the Somalian pirates storm the control room of the ship. After shooting their way through the door they start yelling and threatening the crew.  Then one of the pirates gets Captain Philips’ attention and says to him, ‘No one gets hurt if you don’t play no games.’  The captain tries to protest, saying, ‘The ship’s broken!’  Suddenly, the pirate gets serious.  ‘Hey!  Look at me.  Look at me.  I’m the captain now.’

It’s a powerful moment when it happens.  And you can certainly imagine a hijacking playing out in this way.  Those pirates can’t allow anyone on that crew to think they have any control over the situation.  And they certainly can’t let the captain entertain the thought that he might still hold some sway.  It must be clear that from this moment on he is in charge, he is the boss, he is now the master of that ship.  It must have stung Captain Phillips quite a bit to lose control in that way.  But in the end there was nothing he could do about it.

master-or-servantSo which position would you prefer to be in?  Would you like to be the one who gives the orders, or takes them?  Would you rather be the master or the servant?  I think deep down inside we would all love to be our own masters; to be able to do what we want whenever we want without anyone being able to tell us otherwise.  But the reality is, we aren’t.  Jesus makes it pretty clear for us today that we are not the captain of our lives.  Everybody has a master, the only question is, who?  And the answer to that question has major ramifications not only for your life now, but also, for the life to come.  So let’s listen again as Jesus teaches us a truth that is sometimes hard to swallow.

Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’  The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg…”  So here we have a guy who is so rich that he needs a manager to help him keep track of everything that’s going on.  But it sounds like he didn’t do a thorough enough background check because this manager stinks.  He’s been careless and wasteful with all the things his master put him in charge of.  So now, he’s out, he’s done. And this causes him to go into a bit of a panic.  He’s too lazy and weak to do any physical labor.  He’s too proud to beg.  What is he going to do?

unjust-steward‘I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’  “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  ” ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.  “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’  “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ” ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.  “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’  Here the manager shows how far he is willing to go to save his own skin.  Quickly and sneakily he brings in his master’s business partners and starts slashing their debts left and right.  He gives away what isn’t even his to give in the hopes that these other people will then take care of him.  In other words, he’s stealing from his master for his own use.  Surely this isn’t going to work out well for him, right?  Once his master finds out he’s going to explode.  Or…maybe not.

‘The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.  For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.’  That doesn’t sound right.  Why would he commend him? He’s stealing from him!  Yet, somehow, the master is impressed.  In his own slanted worldview he sees just one truth at play: You do whatever you gotta do to take care of yourself.  If the master had been in his position, he would have done the same thing.  Yes, it’s true, those who are of this world know how to deal with those who are just like them.

And so, the parable ends. But Jesthe-unjust-stewardus isn’t done teaching just yet.  ‘I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’  That doesn’t sound right.  We are all supposed to be dishonest managers who steal from their masters to make other friends?  And then, when we have enough friends we will be let into heaven? This all sounds weird and just…wrong.  Maybe we need to listen to Jesus just a bit more.

‘Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.’  Well, that just makes sense.  If someone is truly trustworthy, they will be faithful with whatever they have been given, no matter how great or small.  ‘So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?’  Now we seem to be going somewhere with this, somewhere beyond this story, somewhere beyond this world.And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?’  Do you see it yet?  ‘Someone else’s property.’  Is it starting to sink in?

god-and-moneyWell, here’s the hammer-blow for you.  ‘No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’  Here was Jesus’ point all along.  The manager had a master who was good to him.  He gave him a job, a place to live, all that he needed for life.  But the manager squandered all that because he was trying to serve two masters: his boss and his money.  And when push came to shove, when he had to choose one over the other, he chose money.  He had been given a trust from his master, and he proved to be unfaithful.  Even after all that he had been given, even after all the ways he had been blessed, he loved his stuff more than the one who provided it.  In the end, Money was his master.

So, who is your master?  Who is the one that you love?  All that we have—money, clothes, cars and toys—they all come from God.  Given to us on loan.  Given to us as a trust.  Whom have you been faithful to: God or Money?  It’s easy to tell ourselves that we don’t really have to worry about this.  It’s easy to think: ‘Well, I’m not rich so Money must not tempt me.’  But it doesn’t matter how much or how little you have.  All that matters is how you are treating what you have been given.  Are you treating all that you have as a blessing, as a gift coming from above?  Or do you see it more as what you deserve, as what you have earned and so you can do with it whatever you want?

Hand writing Time to Upgrade concept with blue marker on transparent wipe board.

Hand writing Time to Upgrade concept with blue marker on transparent wipe board.

What is easier for us to do, to adjust your budget so that you can upgrade your car, computer or smart phone; or to adjust your budget so that you can upgrade your offering by even 1%?  What is easier, taking the time to make a financial plan to save up for that special trip or home improvement project, or taking the time to establish a plan for your giving to the Lord?  What gives us more joy, sliding that credit card through the machine for ourselves, or sealing that envelope for God?  As Jesus says, ‘You cannot serve both God and Money.’  And if our master is money, then heaven has no place for us.

But Jesus did not just lay down this condemning word for us. He laid down his life for us. There was no way for us to combat the temptations of Money on our own.  No way for us to always be faithful and thankful for our God-given loans.  But instead of being a harsh master and saying, ‘Take care of yourself,’ he became a loving brother who says, ‘I will take care of you.’  He grabbed a hold of all the invoices that tpaid-in-fullhe world owed to the Father and said, ‘I will pay these bills.’  Whatever was charged, whatever debt outstanding because of the sins of all people, he paid it in full.  The price was punishment; the price was death; the price was hell.  But he paid it nonetheless.  All so that when our time comes to be called to the gates of glory, the God himself can say to us, ‘Take your bill and make it nothing.  In fact, throw it away, because the blood of my Son has covered it.  My love has bought you.  My forgiveness has purchased you.  I am your master now…and forever.’

It is this truth that then unlocks the challenge of verse nine.  ‘I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’  How does our loving master want us to use his gifts to us? To extend his love to others.  We use what we have to gain friends for Christ now so that when it is all used up at the end of our lives, we have those friends forever.  And when you think of how awesome and amazing our master is, how could you not want to share that goodness with others?

ten-dollarsHere is ten dollars.  What can be done with it?  If I truly have it to spend I can go and get three coffees at Starbucks or Scooter’s.  Or, this ten bucks can be stuck in an envelope, marked for home purposes and be used to put a teacher in front of your children and grandchildren and a pastor in your pulpit.  These ten dollars can be marked for missions and go toward sending missionaries out with the gospel to places like Africa and Russia around the world and places like Lehi, UT and Blair, NE here in the states.  These dollars can be marked for NELHS and help provide a solid foundation for our sons and daughters as they go through some of the most challenging years of their lives.  And this ten dollars can be marked for the school addition, providing a new space for even more children to hear the love of Jesus.  In all these ways and many more a few bucks really does have the ability to win friends for Christ, forever.

So let’s use these gifts of our Lord instead of having them use us.  Let’s dedicate them to our Master instead of letting them master us.  Make a plan to treasure Christ.  Make a commitment to give him your best.  Make it your mission to serve but one master.  God, in Christ, has blessed us bountifully here in Lincoln.  And just imagine what more he can do through you, through me, through all 300 of us.  Amen.

How Do Sheep Get Lost…and then Found?

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders anlost-sheepd goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.  “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”   Luke 15:1-10

How do sheep get lost?  When we think about sheep in Scripture it seems like they are always wandering off and going their own way.  But in the real world, sheep don’t tend to do this.  They are creatures that know how vulnerable they can be.  They seem to understand that that there is strength in numbers.  That’s why you almost always see them in groups. That’s why when one starts to move many others immediately start following.  Individual sheep naturally tend to go along with the herd.

hiding-sheepSo how, then, does any one sheep get lost?  It must be something that happens.  Otherwise, why would Jesus use it as the basis for his parable?  Well, I don’t think a sheep sets out to get lost. I don’t think it one day up and decides: ‘Ugh!  I just can’t stand being around Dolly and Wooly anymore.  I’m outta here!’  Instead it probably happens almost by accident.  She’s just keeping her head down, nibbling on grass, moving from one tuft to the next.  She’s so focused on getting her next bite that she doesn’t notice that she’s wandering off.  And when she finally stops to take a look around she realizes, ‘Uh oh, I’m all alone.’  At first the sheep will bleat and cry, hoping the shepherd will hear her.  But eventually she will just give up ever being found.  She’ll lie down in some wild brush, hiding from predators and rescuers alike.  She won’t make a sound, even when the shepherd is near.

How often have you and I gotten lost in this same way?  We didn’t set out to get lost.  We just get caught up in our own lives, or our kids’ lives.  Our responsibilities consume us and our activities exhaust us until we feel overwhelmed and empty all at the same time.  Our busyness takes over and pushes aside that which we need even more: our time spent in prayer, laying out our struggles to God; our time spent in Scripture, hearing God speak a comforting Word totoo-much our heart; and our time spent in worship; being encouraged and spurred on by one another.  And little by little we get farther and farther away, losing sight of our great need for God.

But I wonder how many of us are thinking right now: ‘I’m sure this might be the case for others, but not for me.’?  We don’t really like to think that we could so easily get lost in this life, as though our internal GPS would never allow such a thing.  But this kind of smug ignorance and arrogance is what gets us wandering off in the first place.  And that’s why Jesus speaks these parables.  He wants us to grasp the chilling fear of becoming spiritually lost; of living so much of life consumed by daily distractions that we no longer want to be found.

But thankfully we don’t have a shepherd who waits around for us to come crawling back to him.  Instead, he goes out on the search for us.  This caring shepherd leaves behind 99 other valuable sheep in searching-shepherdorder to seek out that one that has gone astray.  And he leaves them, by the way, not in the safety of a sheep pen but out in the wilderness, vulnerable and exposed to the elements.  Why would he do that?  Leaving 99 sheep unguarded to search for one lost sheep seems terribly irresponsible and financially foolish.  Not to mention the fact that the shepherd may have to face skinned knees and strained wrists as he crawls through ravines and thickets; may have to suffer through storms and winds and cold as he makes his search, may have to face down wild animals who threaten him along the way.  Why would the Shepherd risk all this and endure all this just for one lost sheep?  Because that’s how much the Shepherd loves that one sheep.  Or in other words, that’s much the Good Shepherd loves you.

cute-lambBut not just you.  He loves all lost sheep.  He wants all lost sheep to be found.  And he wants us to be a part of the search.  But are we so willing to do it?  When we think of this parable we probably imagine a cute, cuddly, helpless lamb.  It’s easy to want to seek out those lost creatures.  But what if the lost sheep is far different from that?  What if the sheep is the kid that taunts and torments your child at school?  What if the sheep is your disorganized co-worker who always shows up late and does the least amount of work?  What if the sheep is the teacher or boss who is so often critical and demanding?  What if the sheep is like you and me on one of our worst days?

Jesus says there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who returns home than over 99 righteous people.  Jesus says there is joy among the angels over one sinner who repents, who acknowledges their sin and turns to the Lord for mercy.  Surely if all of heaven celebrates when but one lost soul is found, when one relationship is restored with God, then we should be hooting and hollering as well.

But this is hard, isn’t it?  It’s hard rejoicing with those who have been away for so long.  It’s difficult to welcome and embrace those that we haven’t really seen before.  When we know someone has had a sordid past, we don’t want to trust them.  When we see someone who doesn’t look, speak, or act like us, we get suspicious.  And when we suspect that it might be a bit too hard to find that one lost sheep, we decide that we’d much rather stay in the company of the other 99.

a-farmer-prayingThere’s an old Jewish story that tells the good fortune of a hardworking farmer.  God appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes.  However there was the condition that whatever God did for the farmer, double would be given to his neighbor.  The farmer wished for a hundred cattle and was overjoyed when he saw them filling his field, until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred.  So he wished for a hundred acres of land and again was filled with joy, until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred.  Rather than celebrating God’s goodness that farmer couldn’t help but feel jealous and slighted that his neighbor got more.  So with his final wish he asked God to strike him blind in one eye.  And upon hearing this, God wept.

We would never think of being so vindictive toward another person, to be so cold and callous toward another human being.  But when we are stingy with the Gospel, reserving it only for those we think are worth it, withholding it from those we don’t think deserve it, are we treating them any differently?  Jesus tells these parables to chief-of-sinnersexpose the grudging spirit that can so easily get a grip on us.  He wants us to remember that without the Shepherd coming and searching for us we would be just as lost as anyone else.  He wants us to always be saying with the Apostle Paul: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.’

God never gives up the search on anyone—no matter how annoying or troubling, no matter how arrogant or entitled.  After all, didn’t he risk everything to find us?  Coming down out of heaven itself, placing himself in the midst of a wicked world filled with doubters and scoffers; harassed and tormented byjesus-carries-sheep Satan, rejected by his own people, sent through a mockery of a trial, beaten, bruised, whipped and killed—all to find and cleanse us from our Pharisee like hearts and ways.  Doesn’t he give everything to bring us back?  The power of the Gospel to bring our hard hearts to life.  The gift of Baptism that cleanses us of every sin.  The blessing of his Word that tells again and again of his full and free forgiveness.  He gave us parents and friends and pastors and teachers to show Him to us.  He gave us a church and a school to grow in him.  He did all this and more so that you would always know you are found by him and loved by him, and nothing in all the world could make him happier.

jesus-finding-lost-sheepIt is this joyous knowledge, that then draws us out of the safety of our pen of 99 and out there searching for that one.  It is this blessed assurance that fills our hearts with the desire to find every last sinner that we can and show them their Shepherd who cannot wait to carry them home.  So what can we do to help find more sheep?  What can we do to bring more rejoicing in heaven?  When someone new shows up here, you greet them and welcome them with open hearts and open arms.  When you meet someone new you invite them here to meet their Good Shepherd.  When God asks for offerings you give them not just for buildings and budgets, but for the wandering ones that we can reach here and the lost ones that our synod can reach around the world.

There are many ways for sheep to get lost, but there’s only one way in which they get found.  So let us do all we can to Treasure Christ, our Shepherd.  Amen.

What Is He Worth?

Gospel LukeLarge crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’  “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.   Luke 14:25-33

Melanie Wright was a swimmer for the Australian national team.  Over the course of her career she won five Olympic medals (2 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze).  She was a world class swimmer with loads of talent.  But it wasn’t just talent that got her these accolades, it was also sacrifice.  Just before the latest Olympics she shared a bit of what she had to go through in order to achieve such glory.

melanie wrightA typical week of training went something like this.  Monday: two hour swim in the morning, two more hours in the evening, plus an hour of circuit training.  Tuesday: Two hour swim, two hours in the gym, one hour of pilates.  Wednesday: Two hour swim; morning and evening.  Thursday: Two hour gym, two hour swim, one hour cardio, one hour core.  Friday: Two hour swim, one hour circuit training, another two hour swim.  Saturday: Three hour swim, two hour circuit training.  She didn’t say anything about Sunday, so I’m guessing it was a day of rest.

In order to keep up with this demanding regimen it meant that many sacrifices had to be made.  Training went for fifty weeks a year, which meant little to no time for celebrating birthdays or holidays, imelanie wright 2ncluding Christmas Day.  She could never stay out late at a party or even stay up late to watch a movie…had to be in bed early to be ready for the next day.  Her food intake had to be carefully monitored, eating five meals a day and even downing a protein shake before bed.  Being so busy she couldn’t go on trips or vacations.  She couldn’t even walk the dog because she needed to keep her legs fresh.  And to top it all off, it wasn’t uncommon for her to push herself so hard that she would throw up at the end of a practice and end up lying on the side of the pool feeling completely broken.  Melanie Wright gave up a lot in order to achieve her dreams.  But in end, she decided, it was worth it.

Is there anything in your life that you think is worth this kind of dedication and sacrifice?  Is there anything or anyone for which you would be willing to give up so much?  If you’re thinking of people perhaps your children or your spouse are coming to mind.  If you’re thinking of things maybe career or country enter your thoughts.  But since you’re here this morning, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that many of you are thinking about Jesus.  Certainly, he’s worth it.  After all, he’s God himself who loved you enough to become a man so he could die and take away our sins.  He’s the one who loves you not only at your best, but also at your worst.  He’s the one who promises to use everything in your life to bless you, even when you can’t see it happening.  And in the end, he promises you heaven.  If anyone is worth following no matter what, it’s got to be Jesus.

Lots of people in Jesus day thought so too.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, were following after Jesus like you are.  They heard about who he was and why he came.  Some of them saw with their own eyes the wonderful things he did: healing cripples and blessing children.  They heard his message of love and forgiveness.  And, to top it all off, he promised them heaven.  Why wouldn’t you follow him?

he said whatBut then, Jesus has to go and say this: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple… Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’  Okay…so…what are you going to do with that?  It’s almost the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a cruel dictator or the leader of some crazy cult.  But Jesus said it.  And this isn’t the only time he’s said something like this.  He told a rich young man he’d never enter heaven unless he gave away all his money.  He told people that if their hands caused them to sin, to cut them off.  And now he looks at the crowds and says, ‘Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’  Is he really serious about this?

quote-i-hate-you-i-love-youI think you know Jesus well enough to know that he’s always serious.  And that means he’s serious when he says things like ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ and even ‘Love your enemies.’  He’s serious when he says the food in your fridge and the clothes in your closet are all gifts of God.  And Jesus is serious here.  But if you think that means that Jesus wants you to look at your spouse on the way home and say, ‘I hate you.’ — and when you get home to tear up the deed to your home and give away all your stuff, then you don’t understand Jesus.

So what is his point?  It’s easy to follow Jesus when he’s giving you joy and happiness, clothes and family.  But what happens when what he gives us is a cross?  Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’  When Jesus says anyone, he includes everyone.  He says wearing a cross doesn’t make you a Christian, but carrying one does.  A king who doesn’t count the cost before he goes to war faces tragedy.  A man who doesn’t count the cost before building a tower could lose it.  A Christian who doesn’t count the cost before picking up his cross might not carry it very long.  So Jesus says to you, ‘Think about what following me really means.  You cannot be my disciples if you let anything between you and me.  Even your most prized possessions cannot come between us; not your family, not your stuff; not even your life.’

holding moneyIf something comes between you and Jesus, you’re not following him. And if this happens then you’re saying to Him that he’s just not worth it.  Jesus tells you to love your family, and the greatest way to do that is showing them that Jesus is most important of all.  If you don’t do that for the sake of avoiding an argument, you’re not really loving them and you’re saying that Jesus just isn’t worth it.  God says every penny that comes from him is a blessing, and it’s all given to remind you to trust in God.  If you start putting God aside to earn more pennies or selfishly cling to most of your pennies instead of generously giving back to Jesus, you’re saying to your Savior that he’s really not worth it.

Do you see what the real cross is that we bear?  Do you see what really gets in the way between us and Jesus?  It’s not our families or our money; it’s our hearts.  It’s us.  Because we look at these parts of our lives that we love and are blessings and we desperately want to hold on to them.  And then Jesus says, ‘Put nothing before me.  Leave nothing between you and me.  Trust me, I’m worth it.’  And it’s enough to make you want to scream, because he’s asking something that I really don’t want to give, and that I know I haven’t given.

If Jesus were like any other person on earth he would say, ‘If that’s how you’re going to treat me, I will treat you the same.’  If Jesus were like any other god that man has ever invented he would say, ‘If that’s how little I am worth to you, then you are worth nothing to me.’  But thanks be to God that in this way he is nothing like us.  Even though he had every reason to remain in heavenly glory surround by countless angels, he didn’t. Instead his mercy decided, ‘I am going to put nothing before you’ as he wrapped himself in human flesh to come and take our place.  His heart determined, ‘I am going to love nothing more than you’ as nails were hammered through him and the cross of deJesus crossath consumed him.  His compassion declared, ‘I will let nothing come between me and you; not your fears, not your loves, not even your sins,’ as the furies and fires of hell rushed over him.  And then when morning broke on Easter morn, with his grave empty and death destroyed, with Satan crushed and salvation won, Jesus proclaimed, ‘This is what you are worth to me.’

So what are you going to do with Jesus’ words now?  Do they, maybe, not sound quite so crazy?  Do they, perhaps, no longer sound quite so harsh and difficult?  Do you see them now as words of love coming from a Savior who will do and say whatever is necessary to bring you to heaven?  He doesn’t hate your family and want you to despise them.  Instead, he wants you to live without the fear of losing them on earth, but with the hope of gaining them for heaven.  He doesn’t want you to throw away your possessions.  Instead, he wants to open your eyes to see that the things you have don’t rule your life or add value to it.  But rather they are gifts and reminders of his grace; gifts that can be used to glorify and praise him more and more.  He doesn’t give you a cross because he likes to see you squirm.  Instead, he gives you one so that you will never forget that heaven is where He is going, and following him is worth everything that you have…and more.

count costJian is a doctor in Asia who left his successful health clinic and now risks his life and that of his family to provide impoverished villages with medical care while also secretly training new church leaders.  He counted the cost and discovered that Jesus was worth it.  Lin is a teacher at a university in Asia where it is illegal to spread the gospel.  She meets in secret with students to talk about the claims of Christ, even though she could lose her livelihood.  She counted the cost and determined that Jesus was worth it.  Shan and Ling are teenagers that were trained and then sent out with the gospel to parts of Asia where there are no churches.  They counted the cost and said of their mission: ‘…Jesus is worthy of all our devotion.’

‘Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’  What are you going to do with words like this?  Like a king considering war or a man planning a tower, count the cost.  When you do that, you see a cross.  When you see that, you see a Savior who wouldn’t let a thing come between him and you.  And when you behold that grace, you want nothing to ever come between you and him. And so, you follow Him.  Bearing every heavy cross he gives and embracing every difficult word he speaks.  Why?  Because you know, in the end, he’s worth it.  Amen.

Humble Before the King

King+Ali+1971As a boxer, Muhammed Ali was great.  With all of the victories in the ring and all the championship belts he wore around his waist, no one could ever claim that he wasn’t something special.  If you remember him at all, you’ll probably recall that he knew just how good he was as well.  And if you didn’t know, he would be sure to tell you.  This was the guy, after all, who proclaimed himself to be the king of the world and once said, ‘It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.’

But there was one time when this “king” was served a well-deserved slice of humble pie.  It was back in his prime and he was on an airplane about to take off.  All the seat belt signs were on and the flight attendant noticed that Ali didn’t have his seat belt on.  So she went over to remind him to fasten it.  Ali replied very quickly and brashly, ‘Superman don’t need no seat belt.’  Without missing a beat the flight attendant responded, ‘Superman don’t need no airplane, either.’  For once the king was speechless, and Ali quietly put on his seat belt.  It was a moment of humility for Mr. Ali, one that he needed, even if he didn’t like it so much.

kneel before kingI’m sure that none of us here would think of ourselves as having even remotely the same amount of arrogance and braggadocio as Muhammed Ali.  And if we were to compare ourselves to him, we might come away thinking, ‘You know, I am pretty humble.’  But that’s the hard part about being humble: once you notice your own humility and start taking pride in it, you’ve already stopped being humble.  Yet, as difficult as it is to attain, humility remains one of the most important characteristics of our Christian faith.  So we have talk about it, so that our God can fill us with it.  And we’re going to do that with these words of Solomon from Proverbs 25.  ‘Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman.’

Solomon’s advice here is pretty simple: be humble before the King.  And you would think this would be an easy thing to do.  Who in their right mind would ever think of being arrogant before the supreme ruler of your land who could have your head chopped off if he wanted to?  However, trying to be humble among the other subjects of the king, that’s a whole other story.  Who wouldn’t want to be recognized by the King?  Who wouldn’t want to be thought of as great?  Just think of the privileges that could come.  Just think of the perks you could get.  If you could become a part of the inner circle, people would probably start to think you’re pretty great and important, too.

Proverbs 16.18Do you see how easy it is for pride and greed to start worming their way in?  See how quickly thoughts can change from, ‘How may I serve?’ to ‘How can I get ahead?’  What do you think a King wants to see in his subjects?  People who willingly serve for the betterment of all or people who scratch and claw and bite so that they can get to the top?  It is a dangerous game to play, trying to assert your own importance and greatness.  ‘Pride goeth before the fall,’ as they say.  Before you know it, you who have made yourself high and mighty are humiliated by the king, and the humble ones beneath you are exalted.

But maybe at this point you’re thinking, ‘That’s all well and good for those who live in actual kingdom’s, but why would I need to worry about that stuff?’  Normally, I would agree with you, if not for what Jesus said to us today.  ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’  From these words things start to become more clear.  Solomon had no interest in arrogant fools jockeying for position within his court.  He wanted subjects who were willing to serve the LORD, for the sake of His kingdom, and to support all who were in it.  And his basis for this was not simply because he thought it was the best way to act.  Rather, it was because he knew that this was the way the LORD wanted his people to live.  Humility before THE KING was best, before the King of heaven and earth.

david-and-nathanThis principle of the LORD still holds true for us today.  Jesus’ words make that ever so clear.  Yet, in the thousands of years of human history, we have not figured this out, not by a long shot.  The Bible is littered with examples of lost battles between humility and arrogance.  Solomon’s own father, David, was described as a man after the LORD’s own heart.  Yet, in the height of arrogance he bedded a woman that was another man’s wife and then had him killed to cover it up.  The LORD chose Abraham out of all the people on earth to receive his gracious promises.  Yet, he did not humbly trust in the LORD’s protection, but chose his own vain path of lying to try and save his own skin.  Moses is described in the book of Numbers as more humble than anyone on the face of the earth.  Yet he once decided that his plan was better than God’s planand so was left out of the Promised Land.  Even those who knew precisely who the King of kings was could not keep their own ego in check.

This challenge of humbling ourselves before the King is the hardest thing to do in life.  And do you know why?  Because chances are you all know someone in your life who is far more arrogant than you.  We all know some blowhard who loves to tout the things he has done and is so sure of the things that he will accomplish.  And as long as we aren’t like them, we are pretty sure that we’ve got this humble thing covered.  But true humility is not found in our relationship with others.  Rather, it is found in our relationship with the King.

RebellionEach and every day displays what is truly in our hearts.  Whom are we going to follow today, the King of heaven or the king of my own heart?  The King decrees that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do all we can to help and serve all others in our lives, especially those in the greatest need.  But our hearts decide that we need to love ourselves and those other people can just fend for themselves.  The King commands that we honor, respect and obey the authorities in our lives; our teachers, our elected officials, and our parents.  But our hearts decide that they don’t really deserve all that; so instead we are going to insult them, ignore them and do all we can to get things by them.  The King demands that we use our words and actions to build people up.  But our hearts decide it is more fun to mock those who mess up, to belittle those who bother us, and to rip those who hurt us in any way.

What else is this but utter arrogance against the King, refusing to do what he says?  What incredible disdain we show for his Law, ignoring the parts we don’t like!  What else is there for the King to say to us but, ‘You cannot be up here with me!  You go down there, to the bowels of hell, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched!’

a-crucified-kingBut this King, he is not a cold-hearted tyrant.  He is not immune to the sufferings of his subjects.  No, he considers the loss of any one of his people to be the greatest of tragedies.  So he swallowed his pride and was willing to give up his kingship for us.  He was willing to empty himself of his glory and then fill himself with humiliation.  Born into a dirty bed of cow feed; subjected to a couple of sinful parents; lashed by tongues and by whips; bore the weight of a heavy cross and let it drive him into the dirt; was treated like the lowest of criminals even though he didn’t deserve a thing.  And the clincher is, he did this to himself.  He could have stopped it at any moment, but he didn’t.  And yet, still, this isn’t the worst of it.

The worst is when he humiliated himself with our sins.  Jesus put them on like we put on our clothes.  And he let God look at him in those clothes and get angry at him for our arrogance, our greed, and our pride.  And he let God unload on those sins with the worst punishment God knows how to dish out so that, when he died, our sins would die too.  Our sins would be buried in1jesucross a grave where God would never see them again, so that he would never have to punish anyone else for them again.  Our sins hurt Jesus.  They humiliated Jesus.  But they will never hurt you, not like that.  Because Jesus humbled himself so that you would be exalted.  Your King bent down low so that you could be lifted high.

But how can this be?  How can this happen?  We who are so weighed down by our guilt, how could we ever reach such amazing heights?  Not by anything that we do, but only through the gifts that our King has given.  In his Word he declares, ‘Take heart, your sins are forgiven.’  In his Baptism you are clothed with his royal robes of righteousness.  Through these gracious means the arrogance of our hearts is cleansed, the rebellion of our souls is purged.  And so we are purified and prepared for the feast of paradise, humbly believing that Christ has done it all for us.

John NewtonSo here we stand, once more humbled, once more filled with gratitude for what our King has done for us.  But how do we stay here?  How do we keep this humble attitude within our hearts?  How do we keep the arrogance from rising again?  John Newton provides us with an excellent example.  Pastor Newton was a prolific hymn-writer, the famed author of Amazing Grace, and a prominent Christian preacher for many years.  On his deathbed a young pastor came to see him and was sad to see this great servant of the Lord leave this earth.  But to this thought Newton replied, ‘True, I’m going on before you, but you’ll soon come after me.  I can tell you now where you will most likely find me—I’ll be sitting at the feet of the thief whom Jesus saved in his dying moments.’  Even after all of his service and accomplishments, he still could only see himself as a lowly sinner in desperate need of God’s amazing grace.

This, my friends, is how we humble ourselves before the King.  We remind ourselves again and again of how little we deserve anything from God.  We recognize and repent of our daily sins.  We rejoice over and over again as we hear the Gospel.  We relive the death and resurrection of our baptisms day after day.  Then we are freed and fueled to humbly serve in the kingdom; all for the good of others and the glory of God.

May our gracious King ever keep us humble before him. May he fill our hearts with love and a great desire to serve.  May we ever keep longing for the day when he will exalt us with him forever.  Amen.

The One Way Home

isaiah-icon“And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.  19 “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. 20 And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD -on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,” says the LORD. “They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. 21 And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the LORD.  22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. 24 “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”                                   Isaiah 66:18-24

Which-WayIf I want to travel home from church I have many different options, many different choices that I can make.  First, I need to start heading west, so I can go with Stockwell or Burnham, either one works just as well as the other.  But neither of these streets goes far enough west, so I need to make a turn and start heading north.  But which one?  The first option is 17th street, but that seems to have a few more stops than I want.  The second option is 13th street, which works, but the speed limit on Highway 2 is faster.  However, if I want to get to Highway 2, I would need to make another turn on Calvert, Arapahoe, or High Street to get over.  Ah…decisions, decisions.  But we’re not done yet.  I still need to get further west.  Thankfully, no matter which way I go, I’ve got plenty of options.  Van Dorn will get me over to my neighborhood, but there’s a little bit of backtracking involved.  South Street is probably the most direct route, but there’s always the possibility of a train.  I could go all the way up to A street, but that’s further north than I really want to go.  Do you see what agony I have to go through just to go home?  But on the plus side at least I know that no matter which way I choose, I’ll make it.

Narrow-DoorWouldn’t it be nice if it worked that way in getting to our real home, our forever home, our home in heaven?  Wouldn’t it be incredible if no matter the routes we chose or the paths we selected they all ended up in the same place?  You could opt for the Muslim way, the Buddhist way, the Wiccan way, it wouldn’t matter. Just believe there’s a god out there and you’re all set. But Jesus made it quite clear to us today that this isn’t an option.  Not only is there only one way to heaven, that way itself is narrow.  Jesus is the only door that opens into paradise and there will be those who think they’re on the right path but will instead find themselves on the outside looking in.

That’s kind of scary, don’t you think?  Imagine being one those people heading up to the pearly gates, fully expecting to be welcomed in, only to hear, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ (Luke 13:27) There could be no greater disappointment than this!  It’s a hundred times worse than not getting what you want for Christmas; a thousand times worse than your spouse-to-be saying ‘No’ on your wedding day.  Why?  Because this disappointment doesn’t end.  Instead it stays and stings for all eternity.  So the questions must be asked: ‘Am I on the right way home?’

We find an answer with the people of Israel here at the end of the book of Isaiah.  The LORD made it quite clear through his prophet what the only way home was: it was Him.  He was the one who would cause a virgin to be with child and give birth to a sinless son.  He was the one who would be pierced for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities.  He was the one who would take their scarlet sins and make them as white as snow.  His Word proclaimed again and again that the way home is only found in what he gives freely by his grace.

chosen by godIsrael, though, had a different view of things.  They knew that they were God’s chosen people. They knew they had a special relationship with Him. And so they thought, ‘That’s all we need.  As long as we keep worshiping in the temple on the Sabbath, keep giving God the sacrifices he wants, we’re all set.’  So they would be pure in God’s eyes on the weekends as they gathered around the message of the coming Savior.  Then, having done their duty, they would run off to do all kinds of wickedness during the week.  And all the while they’d being saying to themselves, ‘How God must love us!’  But He didn’t.  ‘And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.’  In other words, God was saying, ‘If you are going to play games with my Word, I’m going to give it to someone else.’

This is precisely what happened with Israel. But as only God can, he used this act of judgment to bring forth blessing.  ‘I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.’  Yes, he took the Word away from his chosen nation, but then he sent it out to nations near and far.  They would get to hear the glorious good news of salvation.  And what will happen when this takes place?  ‘And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD -on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,’ says the LORD.  People were going to come to the only place where they could find peace with God.  They would make their way to Jerusalem, the place where God dwells and the Savior died.  And in the most awesome of twists, God was going to use the Gentiles to bring the message back to the Jews!  So in the end, precious souls from all over—both Jew and Gentile—would find the one way home.

grain offering‘They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,’ says the LORD.  Because of their hope in forgiveness, because of their trust in the Messiah, they will come before the LORD clean and pure.  They will be able to serve the LORD freely and without fear.  And this blessing will never end.  ‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the LORD.  But just to be sure that this grace isn’t taken for granted, the LORD ends with these powerful words.  ‘And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’

Now, I know that was an awful lot to throw at you all at once.  Perhaps your head is spinning a bit right now.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re already asking yourself, ‘That’s all well and good, Pastor, but what does all this have to do with me?’

Well, first off there is a big time warning here for all Christians.  Isn’t there a part of us, at times, that thinks our admission into heaven is a foregone conclusion?  Isn’t there a part of us, at times, that thinks we don’t really have to put much effort to enter the narrow door?  And not entirely because of Jesus, but rather, because of who you are?  If you have been a Christian all your life, how easy it is to think, ‘Well, I’ve put in all these years of service, God has to let me in.’  If you have come to know Christ later in life, how easy it is to think, ‘I know what it’s like to live without Him, there’s no way I would ever let that slip.’  If you have parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins, all who follow Jesus, how easy it is to think, ‘With all of them around me, with all this going for me, I don’t have to worry.’

dusty-bibleBut to ever treat your status with the LORD as something unimportant, as something which you have all figured out, is to put yourself in serious danger.  And yet, how often has our effort waned in staying on the one and only way home?  How many times have you assumed that you know enough about God’s Word?  How many times have you figured that missing out on worship wasn’t going to hurt you?  How many times have you figured, ‘Oh, I’ll get around to devotions and prayers some other time.’ only to have that time never come?  If we sing songs on Sunday and run to our sins on Monday, that’s a problem.  If we’re filled with more righteous indignation about the evil in the world than about the sins in our own hearts, that’s a problem.  If we think that simply being a member of a conservative Christian church is enough to have a relationship with the LORD; we’ve got another thing coming.  If we don’t listen to his Word, he will send it elsewhere and we will be left with nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

door-to-heavenBut now that the warning has been received, let us also heed the glory of the Gospel.  God doesn’t just want your church attendance.  He doesn’t just want songs of praise and righteous looking lives.  What he wants is your heart.  What he wants is your soul.  What he wants is you.  So he opened a door into heaven itself.  You see that door crack open in the promise of the virgin who would give birth to a son – God with us – and a little light from heaven comes into our world. God then threw that door open when his Son was pierced for our transgressions and brought us peace with God.  And that door is then locked open as he demolished the grave by rising from it.  And now calls out to all people, both Jew and Gentile alike, from every corner off the globe, to come and find in Him the only way home.

Do you know someone who doesn’t know the way?  Do you know someone who may be pleading on the last day, ‘Open the door for us?’ only to find it’s too late?  Have you been telling yourself that God wouldn’t ever punish someone who means so much to you, just because they don’t believe in Jesus?  Have you decided that it’s better not to say anyththeway_thetruth_thelifeing to your children when they wander, because everyone has to find their own way?  Then it’s time to ask ourselves what kind of Christians we are and what kind of church we are.  Are we going to be the kind that pretends hell isn’t real and never talk about it, or the kind that loves people enough to warn them, just like Jesus did?  Are we going to be the kind that is content to keep this good news mostly to ourselves, or the kind that loves others so much we can’t wait to tell them about Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life?

It may seem to some that it would be better if there were more than one way to God, more than one way to our heavenly home.  But what other ways do you know of that bring such joy, that offer such peace, the bring such security and fulfillment?  So hold on to the one way home.  Hold forth the one way so that others can join you there.  Hold fast to Jesus in all things, and you will never lose your way.  Amen.

Dividing Fire

To set a fire“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”  Luke 12:49-53

Fire is a powerful element.  Fire elicits powerful reactions.  When you have a fire contained in a fireplace in your home, it brings thoughts of warmth and comfort.  When you have a fire that is raging and consuming your home, it brings thoughts of horror and terror.  My high school had an annual homecoming tradition of constructing a large ‘L’ out of cardboard boxes which was then (safelycross_burning) set on fire.  It succeeded in getting us all fired up for the game the next day.  The Klu Klux Klan had a habit of lighting crosses on fire on the front lawns of people’s homes.  It often succeeded in frightening and intimidating those they did not like.

It horrifies us to think that the ultimate symbol of Christianity would be combined with the power of fire and then used in such a hateful way.  It sickens us to know that some have twisted the imagery and message of Jesus to spur their own wicked ideas.  It runs completely contrary to the God whom we worship and adore.  Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Jesus, the friend of sinners.  Jesus, the God of love.  I mean, it was his birth that caused the angels to sing, ‘Peace on earth, good will toward men.’  How could anyone think that Jesus would approve of something like this?

But then we hear Jesus speaks these words, I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  Do you think that I have come to give peace on the earth?  No, I say to you, but division.’  Something seems…off about these words, doesn’t it?  Something sounds…not quite right.  I thought Jesus was all about bringing people together?  I thought Jesus was interested in the welfare of everyone, regardless of who you are, what you look like, or where you come from?  How can he be saying these things?

I suppose we could just say that he didn’t really mean it, that he spoke in anger.  But that’s not right.  To just brush off these words without giving them some thought would be to disregard God’s wisdom.  Jesus didn’t speak words that can simply be ignored.  He said what needed to be said.  He spoke what we need to hear.  So there must be some importance, some value to these words.

But as is often the case, what he says is something we don’t really like to hear.  ‘They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…’  This fire is not going to bring some superficial division—like the split between those who prefer Coke and those that like Pepsi; those who root for the Cornhuskers and, well, those who cheer for anyone else.  This separation comes between the closest relationships that one can have: your own blood; your own family.  And Jesus says he wishes this fire was already burning!  What kind of fire could he possibly want to cast upon this earth that does all this damage?

Jesus crossHe tells us, ‘I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!’  Jesus isn’t talking about heading down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  That had already been done.  So think about it.  What was going to poured out on him that he was so anxious to get to?  What was going to wash over him that he couldn’t wait to have cover him?  It was a baptism in his own blood that would cover him from head to toe.  It was a baptism in which the sins of the world would be placed on his shoulders and the wrath of his Father would flood over him.  This baptism is none other than his crucifixion.  This fire begins with his cross.

But wait!  Doesn’t the cross bring forgiveness?  Doesn’t his cross bring redemption?  Doesn’t it bring peace with God?  What better way to bring people together than around the Savior of the world?  What better way to unite the family than with God’s amazing grace?  How can this be the fire that burns relationships and destroys peace?

sad parentsWell, here’s an example; a story from a fellow pastor. There was a woman who grew up as a Mormon.  She had no peace in that religion, no sure hope of eternity.  But then, she was found by Jesus, and all her burdens were lifted.  No longer did she feel she had to save herself.  Now she knew Jesus had done it all for her. So, of course, she wanted to tell her family all about it.  She wanted them to have this same peace.  So she went to her mom and dad.  How do you suppose these Mormon parents reacted?  Mom cried.  Dad said nothing, and looked away.  Both were shocked and appalled at what she had done.  In their eyes, their daughter was throwing away everything important they had passed on to her. Their relationship was forever destroyed.  Her faith in the cross brought division that would never be healed.

The cross of Christ is powerful.  The cross of Jesus elicits powerful reactions.  The cross is a fire that divides the world into two camps, those who believe, and those who do not.  And it does not care who or where or when. So, does this mean that Jesus takes pleasure in this kind of stuff?  Does this mean that Jesus actually tries to cause such pain?  Does this mean he went to the cross to bring war on earth and ill will toward men?  Not in the least.  The problem is not with him.  The problem lies with us.

isaiah59_boy-not-listeningWe, as humans, are forever at odds with what the LORD has said.  We don’t like the claims that he makes on our lives.  We don’t care for the commands that he bids us to follow.  We don’t want him to have total control over our lives. And if we are honest, we don’t really like him saying that he is the only way of salvation, and that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  We would much rather be able to go our own way, to believe what we like, to earn our own righteousness, and do what we’d like.

That is why so many want to tell us that if it feels good, do it.  AND, why so often we tend to agree with them.  That is why so many think that saving yourself for marriage is old-fashioned and backwards.  AND why we kind of want that to be true, too.  That is why people want to say that becoming or embracing homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and we are bigots to think otherwise.  AND why we are tempted to think that maybe it really is okay.  That is why so many think that we shouldn’t get all hung up on truth and doctrine and just let everyone believe what they want.  AND why we sometimes hold back from calling sin a sin, sometimes wanting to bend the rules so that we don’t have to be uncomfortable.

World-BurningBut the cross of Christ doesn’t give any such leeway.  Jesus does not bend on his Word in any way.  And for that, we should be thankful.  Because how easy would it have been for him to forsake the baptism ordained from him?  How simple it would have been for him to reject his mission because so many were and remain opposed to him?  But if he were to do that, he would deny himself.  Had he done that, he would have forsaken his promises.  If he had held back the fire because some would reject him, then all in this world would burn in hell.

fire-of-god-loveBut Jesus, he couldn’t wait to get on with it.  It distressed him that it wasn’t coming quick enough.  Even though it would pierce him, even though it would crush him, even though it would divide him from his Father, he went with determination to the baptism of his cross.  For through it, salvation would then come.  Through it, forgiveness would be purchased.  Through it all our sins of bending the rules, listening to the world and compromising on God’s truth were washed away. Jesus walked into the fire of hell for us, and by the fire of his cross we were divided from the sinful world and united to our Holy God. And so we receive real peace, lasting peace, peace with God forevermore.

It is then this peace, that which can only come from our uncompromising Lord, that brings division in our lives.  There will be those you know who think that your trust in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God is foolish, and they will tell you just how dumb they think you are.  There will be those whom you care about who think your fervent following of the Lord’s commands is ridiculous, and tell you that you need to get with the times.  There will be those whom you love who will view your faith in Christ as the only way of salvation as hateful and wrong, who will think of you as being close-minded and arrogant.  There will be those who reject the message of salvation, and burn your heart as they do.

romans 1.16But do not let this keep you silent.  Do not give in to the temptation to compromise on the truth.  Do not let the pain of this division wear you down to the point of giving up.  Instead, let it stoke the fire within you, let it fuel your faith.  Let it remind you of the rejection Christ suffered, and how he stood firm, for you.  Let it bring to mind his fervor for the truth, and how it brought to you salvation.  Let the fire of his baptism, his cross, set your heart ablaze, so that you keep holding fast to the Word, and so that you keep on speaking that Word.  For that is the only way that more people can know his peace, even as it divides.

Is it scary to think of speaking when such division may come?  Is it hard to share the truth knowing that it and you might be rejected?  Of course it is.  But know this: God never sends you out alone.  The Lord is always there, with you in his Word as you speak.  God is there, with all of his power as you share that Word.  And when you put that amazing Word to work the most amazing thing can happen: a hardened heart is changed, a lost soul is found, a wandering sheep is brought back into the fold…even in people you never thought possible. May God strengthen us all to speak His truth and bless us all with the fire of his love.  Amen.