Proclaim the Gospel

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’ (Matthew 24:14)

the-end‘The end!’  When my children were younger and first learning about reading books, these words were some of the first they picked up.  They knew that when you ran out of pages and closed up the book, you were done.  And so you say, ‘The end!’  And whenever they said it, there was always this sense of pride and accomplishment to it.  It was as if they were saying, ‘Good job!  We did it!  Hooray!’  The end had come, but it wasn’t a sad thing, it was a good thing.

We don’t normally think in this way, but getting to the end of something can actually feel quite good.  Like when you’re having a terrible day and everything seems to go wrong, getting to the end of that day feels pretty good.  Or when it’s Friday afternoon and you’ve been sitting in school all week, the end of the day feels awesome.  But, of course, there are other endings that feel quite bad.  Like when you’re at a birthday party and having all kinds of fun, but then it comes time to go home.  Or, like when Grandma and Grandpa are in town visiting for a few days, but then they have to leave.  Those endings certainly don’t make us shout for joy.

So what about the ending that Jesus talked about today; is it going to be a good one or a bad one?  Well, let’s see.  In the verses just before this one Jesus said, ‘Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.’  (Mt. 24:9-13) That certainly sounds like a good ending, doesn’t it?  All kinds of horrible things aend-of-daysre going to stop and people are going to be saved?  That sounds great!

But later on in this chapter, Jesus says this: ‘Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’  “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.’  (Mt. 24:29-30)  That doesn’t sound good.  Destruction and devastation and mourning?  That sounds awful!

So which is it: a good ending or a bad one?  One that brings tears or one that brings joy?  Well, it all depends on what group you are a part of when the end comes.  Are you among the lost or the saved?  Do you have faith in Jesus, or not?  For those who do not believe it’s going to be terrible.  It will mean a descent heaven-or-hellfrom bad into worse.  It will mean pain never ending and tears everlasting.  It will mean an eternity suffering in the horrors of hell.  But for those who believe the end is going to be awesome.  It will mean an ascent from the imperfect to perfection.  It will mean freedom from all that is bad and wicked and harmful.  It will mean an eternity rejoicing in the glories of paradise.

So this then begs the question: how does one become a believer?  How does one get saved?  Do you have to be born in the right family?  Do you need to follow the right rules?  Do you have to be a super nice person?  Well, what did Jesus say needed to happen before the end would come?  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world…’  The only way that anyone can become a part of the kingdom of heaven is through the Gospel.

the-gospelThat’s a word that I bet you’ve all heard before.  But do you know what it means?  In short, the Gospel is good news.  But what kind of good news?  Good like getting to go to Disney world?  Good like the Huskers going undefeated this year?  Good news like winning a million bucks in the lottery?  Actually, it’s even better than all those put together.  This is the Gospel, spoken by God himself, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)  ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)  ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’  This is the greatest news that the world has ever known.  And only by hearing this amazing news can anyone come to faith and have that amazing end in heaven.

So it’s a really good thing that Jesus promised that this gospel will be preached in all the world, don’t you think?  How awful it would be if not everyone got to hear it?  How terrible would it be if some had no chance at a happy ending?  But the LORD declares that this good news is going to get out there.  So I guess that means we don’t have to do anything, right?  I mean, God says it’s going to happen, so why should I even worry about it?

sharing-the-gospel-with-your-childrenWell, let me ask you this: how did you come to know Jesus?  Did he appear to you in a dream?  Did you wake up one morning suddenly knowing everything there is to know about the Son of God?  Did the Holy Spirit just zap you one day as you were walking along and turn you into a believer?  No, someone shared the Gospel with you.  Someone told you the good news.  Mom and Dad told you that Jesus loves you.  Your teacher told you that Jesus died for you.  Your pastor told you that Christ rose from the grave for you.  Yes, God is the one that brings the Gospel, but he brings it through people like you and me.

Jesus promises us that the Gospel will be preached so that we don’t despair.  As children of God we want what He wants.  We want the whole wide world to know the good news of Jesus.  But there are just so many people out there and so many places to go.  It seems impossible that everyone could be reached.  What if sogo_missions-conferenceme don’t hear it before the end comes?  What if they get lost forever without ever having a chance?  But to this Jesus replies, ‘I won’t let that happen.  The whole wide world will hear it, to the farthest reaches of the globe, so that all may know the truth and be saved.’  And with this promise he then sends us forth with confidence.  The Gospel will be preached and people will be changed.  Even in people and places where you would think it could never happen.

The country of Nepal has been called one of the least Christian countries in the world.  Only one percent of the population is Christian.  It is one of the darkest countries in the world, but even there the light of the Gospel is shining.  Our synod’s friendly counselor to Nepal shared this amazing story.

Every time he would walk by a certain house he could hear the woman screaming.  He was certain she was possessed by demons.  He knew that Jesus could help her.  So one day he knocked on the door and told the family, ‘I know who can help your daughter.’  Later that day the older brother came to see him, deeply offended.  ‘We will never bring our sister to you.  You are lower than the lowest caste in Nepal—you think you can help us?’  nepal-reliefBut he simply replied, ‘I cannot help your sister, but Jesus can.’  The brother left in anger and with the promise, ‘Never will we bring her to you.’

A few days later there was a knock at the door.  The family brought in the possessed woman on a cot.  Her father begged, ‘Please help my daughter.’  This pastor and his wife took that woman into their home.  They prayer for her and over her every day.  Nothing special, nothing dramatic, just prayers in the name of Jesus.  After four weeks, the demons left.  She became a totally different person with no memory of her past.  Upon witnessing this miracle and hearing the Gospel, almost the entire family became Christians.

proclaim-the-gospelI don’t expect that any of you will make it to Nepal any time soon.  But there is something for all of us to do, from the youngest to the oldest, in every church and every home, at work and in school and at play.  It’s something very simple: proclaim the Gospel.  Proclaim it in your prayers, holding God to his amazing promise, asking him to bring the light of grace to every dark corner of the globe.  Proclaim it with your offerings, giving to the mission work of our church that preachers may be sent out near and far.  Proclaim it with your own words, speaking the simple truth of God’s love in Jesus to those who have not heard it.  Proclaim it in your actions, with deeds of kindness and mercy, showing that as God so loved the world, so also do you.  Proclaim it in whatever way that you can, in all the ways that you can.  And when the end comes, you will be able to celebrate with all the lost souls that have been found and rejoice that the kingdom has come to so many.  Amen.

Persistent Prayer

gospel-of-lukeThen Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”  6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.  (Luke 18:1-8a)

megaphone-kid‘Dad… dad… dad… dad… dad… dad… dad…’ The boy kept tugging at his father’s sleeve, oblivious to the fact that dad was deep in conversation with another grown up.  ‘Dad… dad… dad… dad… dad… dad… dad…’  Finally, Dad couldn’t take it anymore.  ‘Excuse me,’ he said, and turned to his son, ‘What do you want?!’  ‘Dad, um, can I have a cookie?’  ‘Yes.  Fine.  Go!’ dad replied without much patience.

I am sure that we would all agree that this isn’t great parenting, rewarding rude behavior with the attention (and the cookie) that the kid wants.  At the same time, I have to admit that there have been times where I have given my kids what they ask for, not because it was best for them, but simply to get them to quit bugging me.

In a sense, God tells us today to be like that little boy.  Now kids, he doesn’t say to be rude and interrupt your parents.  So don’t go home and try it on mom and dad and then blame it on me when you get in trouble.  But God does say we should be persistent in our prayers to him.  In fact, he invites us to pester him with our prayers, just like a kid will do to his dad.  Or, as Jesus put it, just like a widow who has been denied her justice.

unjust-judgeJust think of what it would be like to be that poor woman.  Her husband had just died.  She was all alone with no one to support her, no one to provide for her, no one to defend her.  Now, some predator had swooped in and was ready to take even more.  This ‘adversary’ was engaged in a lawsuit against her.  By twisting the law, it seems, he was ready to take what little she had left.  So, she does the only thing she can and goes to the courts.  The judge is the only one who can help her.  But this pompous guy on the other side of the bench just laughs.  ‘What do I care about some stupid widow?  Someone’s bound to take your stuff one way or another anyhow.  I rule in favor of the adversary.  Case dismissed.’

But there’s one thing the godless, heartless judge didn’t count on: the widow’s persistence.  ‘Judge, give me justice!’ she cried.  ‘Give me justice.  Do what’s right.  Help me.  Don’t look the other way.  Have a heart!  Give me justice!  Send this adversary away empty-handed.  Do what you’ve bene called to do.  Protect me.  Defend me.  Grant me a fair hearing.  Give me justice!’  Day after day, she harassed the judge.  She refused to leave him alone until justice was served.  And persistent-widowbecause she kept hounding him, the corrupt judge finally gave in.  Not to help the woman, mind you, but rather to help himself.  Literally in the Greek he says, ‘Lest by her pummeling, she give me a black eye.’  Persistence pays off!

So how do you compare to the widow?  Do you pray to God like this?  Do you pester him relentlessly?  Do you knock on his door with prayer every now and then (knock…knock…) or do you pound on the door pleading for your case to be heard (knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock)? Do you pester God?

The truth is you and I do pester God and annoy him.  But not with our noise; it’s with our silence.  We offend him whesilencedprayern we don’t go to him in prayer.  Sometimes we think that the only way to break the second commandment (‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.’) is when we curse and swear.  But the greatest misuse of God’s name is to not use it at all!  ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you’ he promises (Psalm 50:15).  But unfortunately, sometimes that is the only time we call on him.  We treat prayer like a spare tire and only pull it out in emergencies.

But Jesus tells us to ‘always pray and not give up… [to] cry out to him day and night…’  And when we don’t, we show how little we are like the widow and how much we are like the godless judge.  We’re arrogant to think we don’t need any help.  We are pompous to think we can handle things on our own.  Do you really suppose you can go it alone without God?  If we truly remembered the depths of our need, we’d probably pray to him a whole lot more.

Be careful then, when you pray to God for justice, that you would get what you think you deserve.  For we wouldn’t like it very much if justice were served.  Because justice would mean punishment for you and me for our arrogance.  It would mean hell for our misuse and neglect of God’s name.  The only prayer we deserve to pray is, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!’

And what is so amazing is that he does!  He has mercy for us in spades!  So much so that they are new every morning!  We would expect punishment for our arrogance that subtly says, ‘I don’t really need you, God.’  But we don’t get the justice we deserve.  Remember Jesus’ prayers to God the Father?  As he was ready to go to the cross to carry our sin on himself he prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, butfatherforgivethem yours be done.’  Later that same night, knowing what would be done to him, he looked down on his enemies and prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’  And with that same grace in his heart he looked upon us and was determined to do whatever it took to save us.  Then, as he hung from that cursed tree, he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ for he was receiving hell in our place – the full brunt of the Father’s wrath.  Yes, he paid the full redemption price for our forgiveness.

And not only that, he also chose us to be his own.  He chose to soften our hard and arrogant hearts, to lead us to recognize our sinful corruption, to trust in his justice dished out on Jesus instead of us.  Through the power of the Word, through the blessing of Baptism, he created the very faith in our hearts that we need.  So now the barrier of prayer-jesus-hearssin that stood between us and God preventing him from ever hearing our prayers is gone!  We are justified by faith before God.  We are holy in his sight.  So he will hear every last word we cry.

So pray to God!  Ask him for forgiveness.  You see Jesus has been punished for our sins.  You witnessed his resurrection that proved the payment was complete.  Our crimes cannot be brought before the court again.  It would not be just.  So he promises then in 1 John, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ So pray to him, confessing your sin. Pray to him trusting in his mercy. And ‘he will see that [you] get justice, and quickly.’

So what is Jesus saying in this parable?  That God’s like a selfish judge and unless you nag him, don’t expect him to answer your prayer.  No!  The widow got what she wanted from an arrogant, godless, and heartless judge.  But God is as different from that judge as night is from day.  Jesus was not comparing the two, but contrasting them.  If an unfeeling and uncaring judge can help if you ask, how much more then will a God who loves you so intensely help you when you ask?

Or as Paul put it in Romans 8: ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’  There was no relationship between the judge and the widow. But there is an amazing fellowship between God and his elect. Again Paul wrote in Romans 8, ‘For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit oabba-fatherf sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.’

It’s as if Jesus says to us in this parable today, ‘Pester me! Bug me! Annoy me! (If that were even possible.) Keep on looking to me and relying on me and asking of me.  Don’t get discouraged when it seems I’m not answering.  I hear you and will bring about good for you. Don’t lose heart! It’s all going to be okay.’  And so we do pray to God like a child asks her dear Father: boldly, persistently, even pestering God to do what’s best for us.

praying-handsAnd if you struggle with what to say when you pray, or how to get started, try using this little trick.  Put the palms of your hands together in front of you like you’ve seen in pictures and movies.  Pray with your thumb for those closest to you.  (For their faith and their health, for their joy and their peace.) Pray with your pointer finger for those who point you and others to the Word.  (It has been said that if you want a better pastor, pray for the one you have.) Pray with your highest finger for those in the highest authority; presidents and senators, governors and congressmen.  (After all, you know they need it.) Pray with your ring finger for married couple and for families.  (Asking God to keep the basic building block of society strong.)  And finally, pray with your pinky finger for those like this widow, those who are weak and without help.

PersistenceInPrayerBut no matter how and when you pray, be persistent with God. Like an annoying little old lady.  Like a pesky kid who won’t stop bugging dad.  Persist in asking and pleading and looking to him for blessings.  Because he promises, that for Christ’s sake, he will hear us and he will grant it.  So pray to God, ‘Dad… dad… dad… dad… dad…’ Plead with him again and again (knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock).  Pester God with persistent prayer, always in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Life of Thanksgiving

book-of-ruthIn the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.  3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.  6 When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.  8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”  Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”  11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!” 14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”  16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem.  (Ruth 1:1-19a)

benfranklinWhen Benjamin Franklin was the United States Ambassador to France, he occasionally attended the Infidels Club – a group that spent most of its time searching for and reading literary masterpieces.  On one occasion Franklin read the book of Ruth to the club when it was gathered together.  However, he changed the names in it so it would not be recognized as a book of the Bible.  When he finished, they were unanimous in their praise.  They said it was one of the most beautiful short stories that they had ever heard and demanded to know where he had found it.  It was his great delight to tell them that it was from the Bible, a book that they thought was worthless and dumb.

As with much of the Bible, the book of Ruth is a good read, a good story.  It’s one that I’m sure most of you are familiar with.  But I wonder what most of us think it’s about.  For some you might be captivated by the rags to riches aspect, how Ruth goes from want to plenty.  For others you might think of the romance, how a widowed woman is able to find love again.  If Hollywood were ever to make a movie about this section of Scripture you just know they would make every effort to tie your heart in knots until you’re aching for Ruth to find happiness.  And then have you bursting into tears when she finally gets her happily ever after.  But what they would miss is something even more remarkable:  a story of mercy and grace that echoes throughout eternity.

Whenever we think of someone in the Bible who suffered through adversity and affliction, it’s amazing that we don’t easily remember Naomi.  Yes, Job is the most obvious example, but when you think about it, Naomi’s not all that far behind.  We just don’t tend to notice it because it takes so long for her to be brought so low.

elimelechFirst there’s a famine in Bethlehem, which on its own is just plain wrong.  Bethlehem means ‘house of bread,’ but at this time there’s no bread to be found.  Things were so desperate and dire for Naomi’s family that her husband decides they need to move.  Now that might not seem like much to us, but for Elimelech this meant giving up land that had been in his family for generations.  That’s hard enough on its own, but made worse by the fact that they were going to Moab.  They were leaving the land the LORD had given to their people as an inheritance, and were now going to a place where false and detestable gods reigned.  It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Naomi was thinking, ‘Well, it can’t get much worse than this.’  But, of course, it did.

Her husband dies, leaving her with only her two sons in a strange land.  Perhaps, for a moment, they thought about going back home.  But with a famine still lingering on, how would they survive?  So they settle in as her two boys take Moabite wives.  This probably didn’t sit too well with Naomi, but what choice did they have?  You got to keep the family line going somehow, and in a few generations no one will even remember.  I’m sure she thought, ‘All will be well as soon as those grandkids come along.’  But they never did.

Instead the opposite happens; her sons die.  Instead of gaining family members she’s losing them.  And she’s losing the most important ones.  In those days no men means no income.  No men means no one to protect you.  No men means you have nothing.  What was she going to do?  Naomi had no hope of getting married again, she’s too old.  Orpah and Ruth still have some child-bearing years left, but once they found new families, she would be all alone.  The only ray of hope left was that she heard there was bread in Bethlehem again.  Maybe, just maybe, some long-lost relative would have pity on her.  Maybe, just maybe, she could go back home.

ruth-weepsSo she starts out for Judah, and at first her two daughters-in-law join her.  Naomi loves them deeply, but she is convinced she needs to let them go.  She’s thought about things from every conceivable angle, considered every possibility, and there’s just nothing for them in Israel.   What were they going to do, wait for Naomi to find a new husband, bear a son, then wait even longer for him to group up?  That wasn’t going to happen.  And they couldn’t honestly hope to find a husband amongst the Jews.  Who would touch these foreigners?  To go with Naomi most likely meant resigning themselves to a life of poverty and begging and servitude.  A life with almost nothing, and little hope for anything more.

You can’t really blame them for weeping, can you?  Was else was there to do?  Their lives had been intimately intertwined now for more than decade.  They had lived together, rejoiced together, and mourned together.  They were a family bound together not merely by the bonds of law, but by the bonds of love.  And if there had been any way to restore their family’s fortunes and keep them all together, they would have done it.  But they had reached the end of their rope, so there was nothing left to do, but let go.

So that’s what Orpah did.  She did the sensible thing and she left.  But not Ruth.  No, she clings to Naomi.  She is unwilling to let her go.  Is she simply overcome with emotion?  Is she too weak to break away?  Naomi even tries to shake her loose again, ‘Look…your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods.  Go with her.’  Come on now, Ruth, it’s the only choice you have left.  But she won’t do it.  She’s choosing to live a desperate and despondent life with an aging and bitter mother-in-law.  Naomi has no money, no food, and no home; and if she goes with her there will most likely be no marriage, no kids and no hope.  But still, she says to Naomi, ‘I’m sticking with you.’!  What’s gotten into her?

ruthandnaomiIn a word: God.  God has gotten into her.  The Holy Spirit has entered her heart.  ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.’  This was not a matter of family loyalty and devotion.  This was not a matter of intense emotion and an aching heart.  This was a matter of faith and trust; of life and death; of heaven and hell.  She knew that if she went back up that road to Moab she would be turning her back on everything she knew to be true about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And even more, she would be turning her back on the God of her salvation. And so she says, ‘Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’  In other words, ‘I’m with you, Naomi, all the way through time.  Through whatever this life brings until we sleep in death and then the LORD raises us from the grave into eternity.  I’m with you, because He is the only God that’s real.  He is the only God that lives.  He is the only God that saves.  So He is the only one I will follow.’

naomi-obedSo as they arrive in Bethlehem, they are not just mother- and daughter-in-law. They are sisters in Christ: they are bound together by trust in the Messiah. They’re living by faith: not just trusting that they’ll find some food to eat, but trusting that the Lord will deliver them forevermore. And soon enough, he does just that. In the most unlikely of matches, Ruth, the Moabite widow, catches the eye of Boaz, the rich Israelite bachelor.  He redeems her and marries her so she and Naomi will have a home.  Soon, they have a son, named Obed.  Obed then has a son, named Jesse.  And Jesse has a son named David, to whom it is promised that the Savior will come through his line.  So when Ruth says, ‘Your people will be my people,’ she isn’t just talking about ancient Israel and she isn’t just talking about her family tree.  In the end, she’s talking about you.

This is what’s at the heart of the story of Ruth.  It’s not just about loyalty and love towards your family.  It’s not just about trusting in the LORD as you go through tough times in life.  It’s about God reaching out his hand of grace into this world and grabbing hold of one of the most unlikely candidates to ever become one of his people.  Then, in an act of divine mercy, he uses that woman as a part of his plan to bring forth his Son.

luke-2-11A thousand years after Ruth, right there in Bethlehem, the Son of David was born of Mary, wrapped in cloths, and placed in a manger.  Thirty years later that Son was anointed with the Spirit in the Jordan River and began to preach and teach, ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’  Three years after that he marched to his cross wearing nothing but his innocence, and once he was nailed to it, he bore all of our guilt.  But three days hence he showed that death could not hold him, and so he proclaimed redemption and resurrection for all those who would believe on him.  So whether you are an Israelite, a Moabite, or a Lincoln-ite; whether you are an American, a German, a Somalian or a Mexican; the LORD says, ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God, and nothing, not even death will separate us.’

This is what filled the heart of Ruth, and in thanksgiving for this grace she was never going to leave it.  This is what filled the heart of the Samaritan leper, and in thanksgiving he praised Jesus with all that he had. This is what filled the heart of Paul, and in thanksgiving he served the Lord through all kinds of hardship.  And this is what fills our hearts as well, and so in thanksgiving we are dedicated to the Lord and his service.

everything_give_thanksSo how will you live your life of thanksgiving?  How will you honor the LORD who has shown such goodness to you?  The ways are endless, the possibilities, limitless.  Each person can find their own way to praise their Savior.  And it’s happening.  Right here among us, it’s happening.  Right here and now with ushers and greeters and organist and techies, your giving thanks through your service.  This past week it happened, as volunteers came in early and late to spruce up the office, they gave thanks through their service.  It happens again and again as Sunday school teachers instruct their little lambs, as lawn mowers and snow shovelers work their muscles, as meals are shared, as prayers are spoken, as help is given—it’s all praise given to Him who loved us so.  May our lives of thanksgiving never cease, and may the LORD always cause them to increase.  Amen.

Live By Faith

prophet-cries‘How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrong?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.’  (Habakkuk 1:2-3)

Have you ever prayed a prayer like this?  Has your heart ever felt this kind of hurt?  Has your soul ever uttered this kind of complaint to the LORD?  When you consider the state of our country, of our world, or perhaps, even your own life, you could easily do so.

Is there violence?  No question about it.  How many different riots have broken out across the country this past year?  How many different shootings have taken place?  How many injuries have been sustained?  How many lives have been lost?  Is there injustice?  Without a doubt.  Ruthless dictators wield their power in other parts of the world, hands-upsuppressing the rights of their people with cruelty.  Here at home authority figures of all stripes are accused of actions of corruption and disgrace.  Is there destruction and strife?  You bet.  Civil wars and battlefields are still active at this very moment while deadly accidents happen left and right.  Is there any shortage of wrongdoing in this world?  Not by a long shot.  That which God says is wicked—sexual immorality, abortion, rampant divorce (to name a few) – is treated as fine and good.  It’s enough to make us cry out, ‘Why isn’t God doing anything about this?’

In Habakkuk’s day it wasn’t just the rest of the world doing these things, it was God’s own people.  It was the LORD’s chosen nation who were guilty of such violence and abuse.  This prophet couldn’t believe that all this was happening within Israel.  And it wasn’t getting any better, only worse.  Why wasn’t the Almighty doing anything to change things?

armies-of-babylonThe LORD responded to Habakkuk’s complaint in the remaining verses of chapter one.  But it wasn’t what the prophet expected.  God declared that he would send the Babylonians to put an end to all this wickedness.  That’s right, those heathen, idol-worshiping pagans were going to be the ones to end this madness.  It would be like the LORD allowing a horde of Muslim armies to come crashing down on America to rid us of our evil.  How in the world could this be God’s plan?  How could this possibly be the answer?

Yet as shocked as Habakkuk may have been, as troubled as he felt by this prophecy, he held himself in check. ‘I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’ (Habakkuk 2:1)  He did not determine his own answers.  He did not come up with his own theories or plans.  Instead he patiently waited for the LORD to speak.

‘Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.  Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.’  (Habakkuk 2:2-3) The LORD is telling Habakkuk not to think that anything he declares won’t come to pass. There is an appointed time for all this to take place.  It may take a while.  It may seem as though it will never come.  But at just the right time, at the time of God’s choosing, it will happen.  And as the rest of chapter two makes clear, it is not only the coming of Babylon that he guarantees.  It is also the coming of God’s judgment on ALL the wicked.

habakkukSo what are God’s people to do until that time?  ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous will live by his faith.’ (Habakkuk 2:4) The LORD speaks first of the Babylonians, of those who follow imaginary gods.  He sees their arrogance and their wickedness.  He knows the depths of their sin.  But those who believe, those who are righteous, they will be different.  Even though they see the wickedness that is so prevalent, that seems so overwhelming, they will not turn to their own ways.  No, they will live waiting for the justice of the LORD to be revealed.  They will live following the will of God.  They will live by faith in what the LORD has declared.

But here we stand, thousands of years later, and nothing seems to have changed.hab-1-2  Yes, the Babylonians did come and lay wasted to Israel.  But what about all the violence, injustice and strife?  It’s still here, is it not?  And not just in other places of the world; but right here in our community; right here in our own lives.  Have you not felt the sting of wickedness done to you?  Have you not endured the scourge of wrongdoing busting into your life?  Have you not felt the pain of injury and injustice?  ‘How long, O LORD, must we cry to you for help?’

We know how the world reacts to such things.  ‘Get even!’ they cry.  ‘Give ‘em what they deserve!’ they bellow.  Soon the devil whispers, ‘Why don’t you just do what others do?  It’s only fair.  Really, it’s the only way to survive.’  Soon our sinful nature chimes in, ‘Why not?  It’s certainly easier than trying to be different.’  But that is the way of the arrogant, the way of the wicked.  They way of the righteous is different.  The way of faith turns away from sin and speaks up against it.  The way of faith forgives the wickedness of others and loves them in spite of it.  The way of faith serves your neighbor and strives to do what pleases the LORD.  The way of the righteous is to live by faith; following the gracious Word of God above all else.

live-by-faithSo, what does this way of life look like?  What will we do?  We will take a stand against the immorality and godlesseness that is all around us.  We will not follow the path of least resistance just because everyone else is doing it. Our speech will not become discolored with the foul language of co-workers and friends.  Our eyes will not be taken in by the foul entertainment which mocks all that God calls good and glorifies all that he says is wicked.  Our bodies will not be used to gratify our most sensual desires and indulge in carnal pleasures.  We will stand against all this even by daring to speak against it, point to God’s will as the only right way.  Some may not like it and may even turn away from us when we live this way.  But the righteous will live by faith.

forgiveYet, we will not only stand in opposition to what is wrong, but will proudly do what is right.  Even that most difficult duty of all: to love.  Yes, we will love even those who do not love us back.  More than that, we will forgive those who do us wrong.  The unbeliever who mocks your faith, the boss that treats you with disrespect, the teacher who drives you nuts, the family member who did you harm, even the spouse who broke your trust.  We will not hold on to our anger.  We will not give in to our desire for revenge.  Instead we will forgive them from the heart, because, the righteous will live by faith.

serveAnd this faith goes even further than forgiveness.  For the love we will show is more than just words.  We will serve out neighbor, in every way that we can.  We will pray for them, wanting them to be blessed and to know the LORD as we do.  We will look after them, helping them in their need.  We will even go out of our way to do them kindness, for our God wants us to go the extra mile.  We will do this for others, even if they have not done anything for us.  We will do this even for those who ignore our kindness and treat us with contempt.  It will challenge us and even trouble us at times to do these things.  But the righteous will live by faith.

Yet, how can we not help but notice that this is not the way we have lived?  Our righteousness has been absent, our goodness lacking, our love almost nonexistent at times.  We have not been righteous.  We haven’t even been close.  How can we ever hope to live in this way?  How can we ever hope to be free from our own injustice and wrongdoing?  How can we ever live in a way that will please the Almighty God?  On our own, we can do nothing.  Our lives prove this time and again.  But we are not righteous by what we do.  As has been said time and again, the righteous will live by faith.

righteousness_through_faithWe live not trusting in our own goodness, but in the goodness of God.  We live not relying on our own righteousness, but on the righteousness of Christ.  We live not hoping in the power of our own love, but place our hope in the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. We trust that God in his goodness did not wish to see us die in hell, but desired to bring us life eternal.  We rely on the fact that Jesus was holy in our place and that through him alone we stand holy before the LORD.  We place our hope in the love of God that sent his one and only Son to be given over to death for our sins and then raised to life for our salvation.  This is our trust.  This is our belief.  This is our faith.  And through this faith we are made righteous, both now and forevermore.

This is the faith that we live by.  Even with the world crumbling into ruin and evil seemingly unchecked, we do not fall to the ground and give up.  No, we look to the Word of the Almighty and find within it the power of our salvation.  We look to the Baptism of our heavenly Father and find that our status has been changed from fallen to forgiven, from means-of-graceslave to son.  We come to the altar of the LORD and find within our tiny little hands the very body and blood of the Lamb of God given and poured out for the redemption of our very souls.  And with all this grace and strength given from on high…we stand.  We stand with Habakkuk as we watch and wait for God’s answers to all our cries.  We stand ready to go forth at God’s command.  We proclaim his truth with our words and live his truth with our actions. We stand firm no matter what knowing that our deliverance is soon at hand.  Because we are the righteous saints of God, and the righteous will live by faith.  Amen.

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.