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Summer Schedule


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

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

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

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

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.

Rich Toward God

therichfoolSomeone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certa
in rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘  20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  21 “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”  
Luke 12:13-21

When Henrietta Garrett died in 1930 she was completely alone.  She had been a widow for 35 years and she never had any kids.  She had outlived her siblings, her aunts and uncles, and most of her friends.  For the last 15 years of her life she holed herself up in her house and saw almost no one. She died with no known heirs and no known will.  You would probably think that no one would care very much about her passing.  But here’s the catch: She had money…lots of money.  She had inherited her husband’s fortune many years before. So at the time of her death she left behind an estate worth 17 million dollars.  In today’s money, that’s over 200 million dollars.

Want to take a wild guess as to what happened next?  People started coming out of the woodwork to make claims on her fortune.  And not just a hagravesitendful…26,000 people from 47 states and 29 foreign countries attempted to prove a relationship with her.  Alleged relatives committed perjury, faked family records, changed their names, altered information in church bibles, and fabricated stories about illegitimate children.  A rumor went around that Henrietta’s maid had hidden her will in her coffin.  So seven years after the burial her body was exhumed to see if it was there (it wasn’t).  It took twenty years to figure out this whole mess, and during that time twelve people were fined, ten went to jail, two committed suicide and three were murdered.

Are you surprised by this?  I mean, are you truly shocked by this response, by this greed?  Yes, the story is salacious; it is the kind of thing you don’t hear every day.  But is it really all that astonishing that pegreed-2ople could be so driven and go so far all because they want more money?  I don’t think it is.  Because, let’s face it, we love our money.  We love what we can do with our money.  We love what we can buy with our money.  And we certainly love the idea of having more money.  That’s why so many of us in this country spend money that they don’t have and buy things that they can’t afford.  We love the idea of having more thinking that when we finally get more we will be happy.

And let’s face it, this isn’t a new phenomenon.  It’s always been this way.  I mean, just look at the guy who wanted Jesus to settle his family squabble.  Jesus had just got done talking about some incredibly important things like God’s coming judgment and unforgiven sin.  But he doesn’t seem to care about any of that.  ‘Tell my brother to give me what is mine!’  We don’t know if this guy was trying to get more than what he was owed or if his brother really was cheating him out of what he deserved.  But either way, it doesn’t matter.  Even with the very Son of God sharing his heavenly wisdom this man couldn’t stop thinking about getting more coins in his pocket.

money cant buy‘…a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ Jesus said.  It’s a statement I’m sure we would all agree with.  We don’t want our self-esteem, our self-worth, to be tied to how much we have or don’t have.  Because when we think about it with a clear head we realize that all this stuff isn’t going to last.  When we consider life with a calm mind we realize that there will always be someone out there who has more.  Have you ever heard someone say, ‘Money can’t buy you happiness.’ or ‘There’s more to life than money.’?   There’s a reason why these old adages have stuck around for so long; there’s a lot of truth in them.

Yet, what Jesus is teaching us here goes a whole lot deeper than just those trite old sayings.  He’s not just saying that greed won’t make you happy.  He’s saying that greed is dangerous.  That was the whole point of his parable.  An already rich man has a bumper crop year.  He is blessed with so much that he doesn’t know where to put it all.  He wants to use the crop wisely, so he invests in larger storage facilities.  He’s planning ahead, planning for the future, just like Joseph did in Egypt.  Now the rich man is ready to start enjoying life a little bit more.  Eat some fancy food, drink some nice wine, hang Burnaud 2out with his friends.  Now, is there anything inherently wrong with any of this – success, planning, security and enjoying life?  No.  But this man got so wrapped in all of that, it became the only thing that mattered.  And when God demanded his soul, what did all his greed get him?  Not life, but death.  Not happiness, but torment.

Jesus says, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…’  Well, are you?  Or is this one of those things that you think won’t ever tempt you? Is this something you’re convinced won’t ever cause you harm?  Perhaps you just keep telling yourself you would never be so foolish as to let greed jeopardize your life.  But when Jesus says to be on guard do you really think you can be so certain?

It reminds me of a story from the Alaskan gold rush years ago.  Some men who were moving inland in search of this precious metal came across a miner’s hut that was as quiet as a grave.  Inside they found the skeletons of two men and a very large quantity of gold.  They also found a letter on the table that told of the successful hunt for gold.  The more they mined the more gold they found.  But they were so eager to get Klondikemore that they missed the coming of winter.  One day a blizzard struck that trapped them inside.  Their food supply, already low, quickly ran out.  They had all the riches they ever could have imagined, ever could have wished for.  But in the end it did them no good as they starved to death.  Do you think they planned to mine until it killed them?  Do you think they ever intended to be led by greed into such foolishness?  But still they were, even though I’m sure they knew better.

Jesus said, ‘This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.’ So the questions must be asked: What do you ignore to your own peril?  What do you neglect in your pursuit of more?  What are the things in life that you are being and feeling rich toward, even more so than God?  Is it the next thing that will excite you: the home improvement, the new toy, the vacation?  Is it the next thing that will give you more comfort: the bigger TV, the new clothes, the nicer car?  Is it the next thing that will make you feel more secure: more hours so that you can pay down the mortgage, more time so that you can be ready for retirement?

greed trustGreed always seems to be there, doesn’t it?  Always just under the surface, enticing us to be rich toward all these other things.  When it’s time write your check for the Sunday offering, greed chimes in: ‘Think of what else you could buy!  Think of how much you could save!  A little less!  A little less!’  When it’s time to set the family budget it rears its head again: ‘Just a little more for yourself and you can be happy!  Just a little more for retirement and your future will be set!’  And when we don’t guard against this we allow a dividing wall to be built up between our hearts and God’s will.  We leave ourselves open to the trap that can only lead to our destruction.
The psalmist Asaph once wrote about the LORD, ‘Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.’ (Ps. 73:25) Deep down we know that this is right, that this is what our attitude should be.  It’s what we want it to be. So how do we get there?  How do we fight back the greed?  How do we get rich toward God in all things?  We must remember that God’s promises give to you what greed never can.

If you had to choose, would you rather have a beautiful home that took lots of time and money to maintain, or a small house with a family that was bound together in love and forgiveness because they spent time in God’s Word?  When the end of life comes, would you rather close your eyes confident that you had plenty of money to leave behind, or confident that you left behind plenty of testimony about the love of Jesus?  Would you rather have treasures made of money and drywall and carburetors, or treasures of faith and love and souls touched by God’s grace?

2 Cor 8.9God gives us greater treasures than greed ever could.  He hasn’t withheld a single thing from us.  All that you need for your life in heaven and your life on earth.  He hasn’t withheld a single thing, not even his own Son, not even his own life.  You don’t have a single sin that he didn’t wash away with his blood.  You don’t have a single ounce of God’s wrath in hell that he hasn’t already suffered in your place.  He hasn’t withheld a single thing.  He’s given you all the you’ve needed, both physically and spiritually, to bring you this far down the road to heaven—even when you were convinced it would never be enough.  He promises to continue to give you all that you need to bring you the rest of the way—even if you still have doubts that it will ever be enough.  Whether it’s food or shelter or clothing or forgiveness or love or strength or patience, God isn’t going to let you down.  There’s no need to doubt.  There’s no reason to give him less than your all.  That’s what God opens up our eyes to see when we repent and go back to his promises.  He hasn’t withheld a single thing from us and he never will.

And do you know what that means?  It means that by faith you are rich.  Through faith you are then rich toward God.  And you don’t even need money to do this.  A widow gave her last mite to the church, and Jesus called her rich.  A woman poured out the most expensive perfume she could find on Jesus’s feet, and he called her rich.  They weren’t crich toward godommended for their wealth.  They were commended for their faith.  You don’t need money to be rich.  All you need is a life.  A life that, by the grace of God, knows how valuable you are to your Father in heaven.  He loved you enough to get you to heaven.  He loves you enough to give you what you need on earth.  You are already rich, so live richly toward God.  Amen.

I Am With You

haggaiThen Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.  Then Haggai, the LORD’s messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: “I am with you,” declares the LORD. So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God.  Haggai 1:12-14

Quick show of hands, how many of you have attempted to teach a child to ride a bike?  Alright, so that’s quite a few of you here today.  For those of you who haven’t, it is an interesting experience to say the least.  Most often, the kids want to do it, they want to be able to ride on their own.  But, they don’t always like the process of figuring it out.  It’s one thing to start out with training wheels, to have that sure balance available no matter what.  That takes out the fear factor.  But once that safety feature comes off, they just don’t know what to do.

child riding bikeSo what can be especially frustrating in the early going is the trust factor.  You take your kid out and you promise them, ‘I am right here.  I am not going to let go.’  You assure them that you are going to help them and not let them fall.  But almost as soon as they start, they freak out.  Immediately they’re throwing their feet down afraid that they are going to smash their face on the concrete.  So, you tell them again, ‘I am with you.  I’m not going anywhere.  Don’t worry, you’ll be safe.’  So you try once more.  Maybe, if you’re lucky, you will actually go forward a little bit.  But it probably won’t take too long and the fear will return, followed by the freak out, and once more you have to start over.

I can remember it driving me nuts, having to repeat these assurances over and over again.  ‘Don’t worry, it will be okay.  I am with you.  I’m not letting go.’  But no matter how many times I would say it, they just couldn’t believe me completely.  They couldn’t get over what they were seeing in front of them.  They couldn’t get past the feeling of wobbliness.  And because I was out of their line of sight, it meant that they had no one to rely on but themselves.  I just wanted my words to sink into their brains, to take root in their hearts, so that they would know they had nothing to fear.  ‘Really, it’s true.  I am with you.’

PEOPLE IN EXILEI wonder if this is how the LORD felt at times with Israel, especially at the time of our text.  You see, God’s chosen nation had gone 70 years without a home.  For over three generations they lived in exile, forced to reside in a foreign land.  They couldn’t live like they used to.  They couldn’t worship like they wanted to.  Everything was strange and different, with little to no hope for the future.

But then, almost out of nowhere, King Cyrus decrees that they can go home.  All Israelites who wish to return to the Promised Land are free to do so.  They can start building houses and farming fields.  They can rebuild their capital city if they like.  They can even reconstruct the temple of the LORD.  Clearly this was the hand of God at work.  He had not forgotten his chosen people. He hadn’t cast his children away for good. He was still watching over them and looking out for them.

rebuilding-templeSo, some of the people came back.  There weren’t very many of them, only about 42,000.  A far cry from the two million that first crossed the Jordan River many years before.  But still, they were able to go back, to once again live in the land that the LORD had promised them, to once again worship in the way the LORD desired.  And so the work of rebuilding began.  Homes were erected.  Foundations were laid.  Crops were planted. The temple started to take shape. Things were looking up.

But then, the roadblocks began to appear and questions began to arise.  They were so few, and the work was so much, how could they ever get it done?  How were they supposed to stay safe when they had so little power?  Foreigners started accusing them of planning a rebellion and threatened to rat them out to the king.  They made veiled threats that an attack may come.  Soon Israel’s confidence began to wane, and their fears began to rise.  They became more interested in their own comfort and protection than in doing the LORD’s work.  Soon all the rebuilding stopped as the people sat on their hands.  They were convinced that they just couldn’t do it, so they gave up.

You can understand why they reacted this way, right?  I mean, so much was stacked up against them and so many stood opposed to them.  An endless supply of fear surrounded them.  Of course they had to take care of themselves.  How could they not worry about their safety?  It’s not like they wanted to stop, they…they just had to.  Surely they would get back to it once the timing was right.

I am with you GodBut there was just one little problem: The LORD had given them a promise.  He said he would be with them. He said he would watch over them.  He promised to bless them as they followed his decrees.  But they weren’t listening to the LORD.  They weren’t believing his kind and gracious words.  They couldn’t see him, so they were afraid.  They didn’t witness any of his miraculous deeds, so they remained apathetic.  Instead of zealously pursuing the work that the LORD had laid before them, they stood still.  ‘Building the temple?  Uplifting the name of the LORD our God?  Yeah, we’ll get around to that, maybe, eventually.  But, now’s not a real good time for that.’

I will admit it’s a bit hard to put ourselves in the sandals of these Israelites. We already have a house of God to worship in and classrooms in which to teach. And even though we have a building project coming, it’s nowhere near the size and grandeur of the temple of the LORD. But forget about buildings for a second because that’s not really what the LORD cared about. He wasn’t on their case because bricks weren’t being laid.  He was on them because he wanted his saving name to be proclaimed.  This has always been the work that God sets before his people: to hold forth his Word of salvation.  And so we also are called to this task. To proclaim the gospel; to make new disciples, to uphold and uplift the great name of the LORD our God so that anyone and everyone may come and see the magnificent things he has done. This is no small thing.

ApathyBut do we always see it for what it is?  Do we recognize the work that the LORD has placed before us, before ALL of us?  Or do we too often see the obstacles and the questions?  Do we let the worries and the fears overshadow what we have been called to do?  We look around and see so many embracing what God says is wrong and hating what he says is right. Does that ever make you think you’re better off keeping your beliefs to yourself?  We look around at our city and see churches left and right, some of which are bigger and fancier than ours.  Does that ever get you discouraged thinking we will never make as big of an impact as they?  We look around at this congregation that’s been going steady for 60 years now.  Do you find yourself becoming a little too content with the way things are, and with letting others do the work that you yourself could be doing?  How easy it is for fear and apathy to creep into our hearts and sap our zeal.  How easy it is find other things to do with our time.  Kind of sounds a bit like those Israelites, doesn’t it?

But they didn’t stay that way, did they?  No, their spirits were stirred and their hearts were moved.  So what happened?  Were their enemies wiped out?  Did their reason for fear disappear?  No, it was the Word of the LORD that changed them.  ‘I am with you,’ he declared.  With that simple message he transformed the hearts of the people.  He reminded them of his never-ending love for them.  He reminded them of his eternal promises to them.  He brought to their hearts the reassurance that the LORD, their Savior-God, was right beside them, and would not let them down.  ‘I am with you.’ Once more they were reminded of the greatness and mercies of their God.  Once more they found reason to trust.  Once more they were moved to act.  Through God’s promise their fears were dispersed.  So they got to the work of the LORD.

Matthew 28.20Has God not made these same promises to us?  Has he not declared himself to be with us?  Has he not promised that where two or three gather in his name, there he is with them?  Has he not decreed to be with us always to the very end of the age?  And this is no puny, insignificant God.  This is the LORD ALMIGHTY!  This the one who set the stars in their places and who the planets in their orbits.  This is the one who causes entire empires to rise and fall according to his will.  This is the one who has governed the entire course of human history to bring salvation to mankind.  He is the one who managed to contain himself in human flesh, to live an entire generation without ever once slipping into sin, to take upon himself the sins and iniquities of all people for all time.  He is one who conquered the grave.  He is the one who destroyed the devil.  And for what purpose?  To bring forgiveness to you, to offer salvation to me.  He did all this so that we could be with him, forever.  He is the one who says to you, to us, ‘I am with you.’

His promise was not only fomatthew18_20r ancient Israel. His promise is not for some future time.  It is for us, right now.  For he has declared himself to always be present and powerful in his Word. He has guaranteed that whenever his Scripture is used, it works.  He has promised to always be near to protect and sustain us, to uplift and strengthen us.  There is never a time when we are without him.  There is never a time when he is not right beside us.  So there is never a reason for us to be afraid.  There is never a reason for us to be sitting on our hands.  There is only the work the LORD has given us to do, and our zealous hearts set on fire by his Spirit working within us.

Isaiah 41.10The LORD declares to you, today.  ‘I am with you.’  The LORD declares to us, as a congregation, ‘I am with you.’  The LORD declares to our teachers, those who have been here a while and those just starting out, ‘I am with you.’  What great things can we accomplish through his blessing?  What wonderful works can we perform by his power?  What amazing things can be done through his grace?  Let us recommit ourselves to the LORD’s work, with his promise and blessing always in our hearts and minds: ‘I am with you.’ Amen.

Prayer Works

ElijahPraying4RainIs any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.  (James 5:13-18)

In our world there is no shortage of mockery about the practice and effectiveness of prayer.  I came across a fake, satiric news story about a paralyzed boy who had prayed that God would let him walk again.  The “story” went on and on about how amazing it was that God actually made himself visible, descended from the clouds, and spoke directly to this little boy.  He praised little ‘Timmy’ for his fervent prayers.  But then after all this pomp and circumstance, after this incredibly grand display, God told him, ‘No, I won’t heal you.  You’re never going to walk again.”

God Heal AmputeeAs crass and offensive as this ‘joke’ is, it’s not nearly as bad as ‘Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?’  Yep, you heard me right, there is a website and a book called, ‘Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?’  It boasts that this is the most important question that we can ask about God.  The basic premise is simple.  God says that he hears and answers prayers.  Jesus says, ‘Ask and it will be given to you.’  But an amputee can pray all they want for their arms or legs to grow back, and it just isn’t going to happen.  Therefore, God is a liar; or, God is not all-powerful; or, God simply does not exist.  Or in other words, ‘Believing in the Lord is foolish, the Bible is worthless and prayer is stupid.’

Thoughts and PrayersI don’t know how many people truly buy into this logic, but obviously some do.  Yet, it always strikes me that whenever a great tragedy occurs, most of this mockery suddenly becomes silent.  With all the police shootings and terrorist attacks that have happened recently; with all of the pain and fright that we have witnessed; how many times have you heard people say, ‘Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.’  Somehow, in a world filled with skepticism and unbelief, people still want to pray.  It’s as though each one of us has this inborn need to cry out to someone or something greater than us when we face tragedy and strife.  In the midst of trouble, people are moved to pray, because we want there to be a reason for hope and the possibility of help in our time of need.

Prayer WorksTo a certain degree, this is where James is coming from as he writes his Spirit-inspired words, ‘Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.’  You can’t get much more direct than that.  No matter what the trouble you face: physical, emotional, spiritual; no matter the size of this trouble: small, large or catastrophic – you should pray.  But we aren’t told to do this just because it’s the right thing to do (which it is).  We aren’t encouraged to do this just to make us feel better (although it will).  We aren’t instructed to do this just so that God is honored (which he will be).  No we are told to pray…because it works.

‘And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.’ Do you notice any ambiguity in these words?  Does God qualify these remarks in any way?  No, he tells us that prayer works.  And if you think that this is just one minor passage that we can’t really base anything on, what about Psalm 50:15, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble; I WILL deliver you.’?  What about Jesus speaking in Mark 11:24, ‘whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it WILL be yours.’?  This is a promise that the Lord repeats again and again in Scripture.  ‘Pray to me, and I WILL answer.  Pray to me and I WILL help you.’  God makes prayer powerful because he ties himself to it.  When we pray, God acts.

God WhyBut what about those moments when you asked for something, and you didn’t get it?  What about when I prayed often for my sister to be healed of her cancer, but she still died?  What about the countless mothers and fathers that have prayed for their children to be spared, only to watch them leave this life?  James spoke of prayer being offered in faith; does this mean that my faith wasn’t strong enough for my sister to be healed?  He also talked about the prayer of a righteous man; does that mean that he will only grant your requests when you have been good enough?  Or does this all mean that the skeptics and cynics are right, and prayer is a stupid thing to do?

Well, that all depends on what you think of those two big words: faith and righteous.  Is your idea of faith simply how strongly you believe in something?  Is your idea of being righteous all about how good of a person you are?  Then your prayers are going to be worthless, because they aren’t really being offered to God, but rather to yourself.  But, if you understand that being righteous is something that we can never become on our own because we are born and steeped in sin; if you understand that faith is a gift of God that trusts that Jesus has made us righteous through his life, death, and resurrection; then your prayers are priceless, because they are tied to the God of all mercy and might, to the God of all power and love.

James 5.16 bThose who have this faith, and through it have this righteousness, understand that everything rests in God’s gracious hands.  So even though we don’t immediately receive what we asked for, that doesn’t mean that our prayers didn’t work.  No, we trust in what the Word of the Lord has said, ‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.’  We understand that the God of all grace heard us and acted.  And in his great love he gave to us something even better than what we asked for; because he who loves us beyond measure has promised to always and only do what for us what is best.

So the healing for my sister did not come in this life, but it did come to her in heavenly glory.  Those Christian mothers and fathers who mourn the loReunion-in-heaven-bss of their children will see them pain-free in paradise.  Whatever troubles you face now may not immediately disappear, but will evaporate completely in paradise.  And let’s not forget that on many a glorious occasion, God does give just what we asked for, right at that very moment.  So through it all we continually say with Jesus, ‘Your will be done.’ Knowing that his good will for us is our greatest joy.

So with all this going for us, what could possibly keep us from praying?  When we remember the incredible privilege that God lays before us, the amazing blessing that he gives us by allowing us to pray, why would we ever stop?  Sadly, it’s not because we are worn down by the mockery of those around us or because we believe the nonsense of the skeptics.  No, our prayers cease because we have other things that we think we need to do first.  Our prayers become few and far between because we are just so busy that we don’t have time.  Our prayers areare-you-too-busy-for-god saved for emergency situations only, and the rest of the time we think we can handle things ourselves.  There is no end to the things we could and should be praying about, yet all too often we pray so very little.

Just think of what we are saying to the Almighty God!  Through our lack of action, our lack of words, we are saying an awful lot, and all of it awfully bad.  Failing to pray says that we really don’t think God’s going to answer us when we do.  Skipping out on prayers says that we really don’t think it works and so it isn’t worth our time.  Neglecting to pray essentially says to God, ‘I don’t believe you.  I don’t believe that it really is powerful and effective.  I don’t think you can really do anything about this anyway, so I am going to keep my heart and mouth shut.’  These thoughts may never actually cross our minds, but our silence shouts them loud and clear.  And so we declare our contempt for God and his gifts.  We display the sinful rot that lives within us.  We show how unrighteous we truly are.

Jesus prayingSo why would a holy God listen to any of our prayers?  Why would he pay any attention to our cries for mercy?  Because of his Son.  Because of Christ.  Jesus came to this earth to be the perfect ‘pray-er’ in our place.  Jesus always spoke to his Father about anything and everything.  He always trusted God’s will for his life and was willing to accept whatever was planned for him.  Jesus was the righteous man that none of us could ever be, and that perfect life he gave to you and me.  Even more than that, he was the perfect sacrifice for you and me.  So all of our failures to pray were nailed to his cross; all of our neglect of his gifts was washed away by his blood.  Through his death we are now clean.  Through his resurrection we are saved.  We are pure, perfect and righteous children of God.

This is why prayer works.  This is why your prayers work.  Because they are raised up to the one who has loved us, has redeemed us, has saved us from hell itself.  He has promised to make our prayers powerful and effective; and we know that he will never let us down.  Through Jesus, the Father will hear us.  Because of Jesus, the Spirit will act.  So we will pray boldly before the one who has done great things for us.  We will go to him with all our worries and concerns.  We will go to him with all of our problems and troubles.  We will speak to each and every day—mprayerworkssssss...orning, noon, and night—knowing that these conversations are the ones that matter most.  For they are with the one who can and will do more than we can ask or imagine.

I wanted to end the sermon today by sharing with the perfect story of answered prayer.  I did some digging online, found a ton of different possibilities, but none of them seemed quite right.  Then I realized something: trying to base our prayer life only on outward evidence undercuts the promises of God.  Yes, there is plenty of proof out there that prayer accomplishes some amazing things. But to believe only what our eyes can see is to follow the path of the skeptics and cynics.  God says that he will heal when we pray.  God says that he will forgive when we ask for it.  God says that prayer works.  So we believe him, and we pray.  Amen.

We Are Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Has Come To Help His People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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