Grief Into Joy

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.   (John 16:20-22)

These words sound almost contradictory, don’t they? ‘You will weep, mourn and grieve.’  No wait!  ‘You will rejoice and no one will take away your joy.’  So…which one is it?  I know which one that I want, but I also want the truth.  I know which one sounds more pleasant, but I don’t want to be seeking after some false dream.  Help me out here, Jesus.  Is it like I hope that is that God wants me to have joy?  Or is it what I fear to be the case, that God wants me to endure suffering?  Is it true, what I have heard people say many times before, that God wants me to be happy?

Well, if you had to base things only on the other two readings for today, what conclusion would you come to?  Jesus’ sermon probably didn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy.  It was filled with a bunch of “do’s” and “don’ts” that most likely left you feeling a little guilty.  The word of the LORD to Israel wasn’t all that uplifting either.  Especially when you hear words like curse, death and destruction.  These certainly make it sound like what God wants is not so much our happiness but rather our obedience.  But knowing what we do about Jesus – his love for us, his devotion to us – that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?  We know our God cares for us deeply, so why wouldn’t he want us to be happy?

I have to ask, though, what kind of happiness are we talking about? What normally makes us happy is getting what we want.  What usually makes us happy is doing what we want to do.  But what if what I want is to be angry and spiteful towards someone and conjure up all kinds of mean and nasty things to say about them when they’re not around?  What if what I want is to be able to look at other people as objects of my desire whenever I feel like it?  What if what I want is to be able to walk away from my marriage because I think my partner isn’t trying hard enough?  If this is the kind of happiness you desire, then no, God doesn’t want you to be happy.  Because this kind of happiness cares only about this life and nothing of the one that is to come.  This kind of happiness is only thinking about me and not at all about the God who made me.

You know, the disciples had their own struggle with this, too.  Think about it.  There was the time that a couple of them argued about who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God.  And then the rest of them got upset, not because they thought it was wrong but because they didn’t think of it first.  There was also, of course, Judas who went looking for his happiness in money.  And so, he sold out Jesus for a mere thirty pieces of silver happiness.  And how could we forget Peter, who in his desire to avoid all pain and disgrace denied even knowing Jesus, while calling down curses to reinforce the lie.

We look at those actions as shameful and shallow and awful, yet don’t we at the same time completely understand what was going through their minds?  They wanted to avoid the hurt and the grief at all costs.  They wanted to have their joy.  And do we not do the same?  We avoid the hard and tough stuff.  We recoil from walking the rocky but righteous path.  We try and hide from anything that might make us uncomfortable; that might force me to deny my own desires.  We do it with our kids too, don’t we?  Discipline gets relaxed because we don’t them to be sad.  We buy them and give them more than they need because we don’t want them to get upset.  We let them go their own way and do their own thing not wanting to have the difficult discussion of showing them the better way.  We do this because we don’t want to see frowns, but smiles.  We just want them, and us, to be happy.

But what is at the heart of all this?  Sooner or later we must realize that the problem lies within us.  What’s really going on deep down in our hearts is that we only care about ourselves.  ‘I just want to be happy.  I just want what I want.  And if sometimes that means going against what God wants, so be it.  I know he will understand in the end.  If he wants me to be happy, and I’m pretty sure he does, he’s going to see things my way.’  But the truth of the matter is that he won’t.  The only right way is His way.  And if we keep on insisting that our selfishness is best, that’s only going to lead to the never-ending tears in hell.

So, does this mean I have to be miserable now so that I can be happy later?  Does this mean that God is just some cranky old man who can’t stand seeing anyone crack a smile?  No, it’s not that God wants you to be unhappy, it’s just that he wants you to have something so much more than worldly happiness!

Remember the picture that he used?  As everyone knows, one of the most intense pains imaginable is what comes from birthing a child.  Every mother is excited to finally meet their little one face to face. But I don’t know how much happiness is actually going on in the delivery room.  There’s no way they enjoy the pain they endure.  If anything, they would have liked to avoid it all together.  But what happens when the moment comes?  What happens when Mom lays her eyes on her little miracle for the first time?  All the anguish and pain and suffering just melt away.  All that remains is joy.  It’s not that the pain wasn’t real, it’s just that it’s overwhelmed by the joy of the child.  You see, it’s not that God wants you to be unhappy.  Rather, it’s that even as you go through grief and pain in this life, he wants you to have something more: JOY.

Think of John the Baptist.  Imagine him as he languishes in prison for the crime of telling Herod that his actions were against God’s will.  It had to have been painful.  It must have filled him with grief.  His entire life was devoted to proclaiming that the Messiah was coming.  And now he was locked up for doing his Savior’s will.  How could he not be asking himself, ‘Is it really worth all this suffering?  Is it really worth all the shame?’  So, he sends a proxy to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’  In other words, ‘Tell me it’s worth it.  Please tell me that joy is on its way.’  And then the word comes back, ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.  I am the one who was promised. I am the one you waited for.  I am the Son of God and Savior of the world.’  Even in the dark dungeon cell, John had joy.

Do you see the difference between earthly happiness and heavenly joy?  One is a roller coaster and a chasing after the wind.  The other is as steady and certain as the covenant that Jesus sealed with his blood.  This is what Christ purchased for you and for me with his crimson flood: an abiding and enduring joy.  Joy, even when your strength wanes and your hope fades.  Joy, even when the heart aches and tears fall.  Joy, even when the pain strikes and death destroys.  His joy does not fade, for it was achieved eternally through his death. Every minute of selfishness, every second of greed, every moment of self-indulgence, all of it is paid in full.  Every bit of offense, every drop of guilt, every bit of shame; all of it is taken away.  All the chains of sin, all the weight of iniquity, all the bonds of death; they are broken by his resurrection from the grave.  Nothing in all the world can hold a candle to what Jesus has done for you, has won for you.  Yes, God does want you to be happy…to be eternally happy, with him, forevermore.

So then, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.  Let us, who are thirsty from our sins, come to the waters he offers and live.  Let us commit to take our positions at the foot of the cross and see the blood that was poured out for us.  Let us bring our children to the place where their salvation was won and their forgiveness achieved.  Let us seek the Lord together as families, together as a school, together as a church, together as fellow Christians, by finding him in his Word day after day.  Let us relish the opportunities provided by this congregation to grow in the knowledge of our Savior Jesus and so grow in our joy.  As troubles assail us, let us be reminded of Jesus’ promise: your grief will turn to joy.  Let us fix our eyes on him who did not promise temporary happiness, but eternal joy and blessedness by his side.  Amen.

Be What You Are

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.   Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.   Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.  (1 Peter 2:9-12)
Do you know what you are?  I’m serious, this is an actual question.  Do you know what you are?  Take a second to think about it.  Now, what was the first thing that popped into your mind?  Was it based on some kind of family connection?  I am a father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife.  Was it based on a job title?  I am a manager, a librarian, an electrician, a nurse, a claims specialist, a financial advisor, a stay-at-home mom, a retiree?  Was it based on location?  I am an American, a Nebraskan, a Lincoln-ite.  Or was it based on something you like or do?  I’m a sports fan, a music lover, a collector, a gamer, a handyman, a health-nut. Or because we are in church right now, was it based on faith?  I am a Lutheran, a WELS member, or simply, a Christian.

Well, whatever that first thought was in your brain, I want you to get rid of it.  Throw it away.  Cast it from your mind.  Because now it is time to grasp what you really are.  It is based on something stronger than blood lines, something more important that your job, something more crucial than where you live, and something more joyful than even your favorite hobby.  What you are is entirely dependent on the declaration of the Almighty God.  So, are you ready to hear it?  Are you ready to know what you are?  ‘… you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…’

So, what seems to be the problem?  I got no cheer as I read these words.  There were no joyful shouts.  No dancing in the aisle.  Do you not care?  Are you not moved?  Are you disappointed in what God says that you are?  Perhaps you did not fully grasp the magnitude of what God has spoken.

You are one who has been specially chosen by God.  Even though there are over 7 billion people in this world, the Lord has taken the time and the effort to single out you as one that he wants.  And this isn’t because you have so many friends on Facebook (or because you have never been on Facebook at all).  This isn’t because your family is just so special (or because it seems so average).  This isn’t because you have accomplished some great feat (or because you feel you’ve done so little).  And it isn’t because you have been so much better at life than everyone else around you.  No, it’s only because God loves you and in his mercy, he wants you to be with him forever.

You would think that this, all on its own, would be enough to have you leaping for joy.  But you are something else as well: a royal priesthood.  Did you hear that?  You’re royalty.  You have an elevated status.  You are the cream of the crop. There is no one above you in any way, save God himself.  You are elite in God’s sight.  And what’s more, you are a priest.  Which means that you have access to God.  You can come to him at any time.  You have also been commissioned to offer sacrifices to his name.  What back in the days of the Old Testament only a handful of people were allowed to do, you are now given that privilege.  You are really becoming something special here, don’t you think?

But we are not done yet.  You are a holy nation.  Wait a minute, now we are just getting crazy!  Holy?  Without sin?  How can that be?  No one is that good.  No one is that kind and generous and loving all the time.  And you’re right, that’s true, except for Jesus.  He really was that holy.  He really was that good.  And he gives that holiness to you.  No sin clings to you anymore.  And guess what?  You’re not alone.  There is a whole nation of people made holy by Jesus. You are bound with them here on earth and with all the saints in heaven.  This is really getting over the top here, isn’t it?

But still, there’s more.  You are a people belonging to God.  Yes, God actually lays claim on you.  He is willing and glad to say, ‘Yep, that one over there, he’s with me.  Oh yeah, this one is definitely on my team.  That’s my guy.  That’s my girl.’  And so dedicated he is to you, he does everything in his power to look after you and care for you.  You are the apple of his eye and he will not let you out of his sight.  He will even send his angels to watch over you and keep you from harm.  You are his most treasured possession.  He is not embarrassed in the least to call you his own.

So, what gives?  Still no clapping and cheering?  Still no one bursting into song?  What’s wrong, folks?  Cat got your tongue?  Frog in your throat?  Has the winter weather frozen your mouth shut?  What is keeping you from shouting praise to the Lord your God?

I think I know what it is.  It’s the darkness, isn’t it?  No, not the lack of sunshine and the overcast skies.  I’m talking about the darkness inside you.  You know what I mean, don’t you?  The ugly thoughts that you have about other people: judging them for what they do and don’t do; getting angry at them when they treat you bad; the vicious things you consider saying about them; the hurtful things you wish you could do to them.  Then there are the selfish thoughts that you have about yourself: always wanting to do what will make you happy; not caring about how it will affect others; failing to show mercy to others who could use your help; not being willing to do all you can to love your family because it might mean sacrificing your own enjoyment and pleasure.  And then these dark thoughts so often lead to even darker actions.  I don’t think I need to give you any more examples of that.  Deep down in your heart you know the ways you have sinned.

Perhaps this is what’s keeping you quiet.  Perhaps this is what is preventing you from embracing what you are.  Because you know that your life doesn’t match up with all those wonderful titles that God says that you are.  You aren’t living like a priest.  Your life doesn’t look so holy.  Sometimes it doesn’t appear like you belong to God at all.  It sounds impossible that you could be any of these great and amazing things.

You are right, in a way.  You can’t be any of these things on your own.  But that’s what makes it so awesome!  God has made you what you are.  You aren’t chosen because you are so great; you are chosen because God has so much grace!  You aren’t priests because you have earned your position; you are priests because God called you in his mercy!  You aren’t holy because you performed so many good works; you are holy because Jesus died to take all your sins away!  You don’t belong to God because you were so righteous he just had to have you; you belong to God because he came to you in the fullness of his love and made you his own!

Peter put it  this way, ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’  Once upon a time, you were nothing.  Once upon a time you had no hope for anything.  You were cut off from the one true God and due only his wrath and punishment.  But then, God came to you.  He came to you through parents that brought you to the font of your baptism and had you washed in water, cleansed by the Word, and entered into God’s family.  He came to you through a friend who told you about a Savior named Jesus, and pointed you to his cross of your salvation and his empty tomb of your everlasting life.  He came to you through a loved one that declared the praises of the most awesome God who called you out of the darkness of sin and into the wonderful light of faith.  So, do you now know what you are?  Hear God tell you again, ‘… you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…’

And I gotta tell you, how you identify yourself has some pretty major consequences about how you live your life.  If you think of yourself as a loser, chances are, you’ll be a loser.  If you think of yourself as a nobody, people will often treat you like a nobody. If you think of yourself as a no good, rotten scumbag, chances are, that is how you will act.  But if you think of yourself as one who is capable of doing your job, you will do your job well.  If you think of yourself as one who can be productive, things will get done.  If you think of yourself as one who can help others, that is what will often take place.

So, think about what this means for you on a spiritual level.  Your identity isn’t based on what you decide or do.  What you are has already been declared by God himself.  So, it’s not a matter of changing your whole persona, or becoming an entirely different person.  God has already done the heavy lifting. Now, he simply calls for you to be what you are.

That’s what Peter is getting at with this encouragement.  ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’  What do God’s people do?  We don’t live for this world, we live for the one to come.  We don’t buy into the mindset that I must do whatever pleases me here and now.  Instead, we focus on what pleases God and pour our energy into praising him both now and forever.  So, we turn away from sin, even when it makes us seem odd to others.  We seek to do good to others, that the love of Christ may be shown in our lives.  We become strange in the eyes of the world, because our hearts are locked on heaven.

You are God’s people, so pursue a godly life.  You are holy, so seek out a life that reflects the holiness implanted in your soul.  You are a priest, so come to God again and again with your sacrifices of praise.  And when you come up short in your striving for goodness, don’t fret or lose heart.  Thanks to Jesus you are still a part of his nation and by his mercy are still holy in his sight.  Never forget that God has made you to be something amazing and marvelous in his sight and in this world.  So always remember what you are.  And then, be what you are in Christ.  Amen.

I Am Blessed

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.   Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Matthew 5:1-12)

Blessed are the rich, because they can buy whatever they want.

Blessed are the strong, because they can take whatever they want.

Blessed are the beautiful, because they are given whatever they want.

Blessed are the talented and smart, because they can do whatever they want.

Blessed are the brash, because they will get their way.

Do these words sound strange to you?  I suppose they do right now, having heard Jesus’ words to the contrary just a few moments ago.  But are they really all that uncommon?  Are they really that strange to consider?  Because this is the way the world works most of the time, isn’t it?  Those who have more, must be happier.  Those who get what they want are those who are willing to go out and get it.  They are the blessed ones, because just look at what they possess!

It’s this mindset that probably brought many people to see Jesus as he began his famous Sermon on the Mount.  No doubt they had heard of the wonders that he was doing, the miracles of healing and restoration.  Perhaps they had even heard that his message was different, too.  Good news of grace as opposed to the non-stop demands of the law.  But no matter what they heard, it’s safe to assume that they came with the hope that Jesus would make them blessed.  They came wanting Jesus to make them happy.

But then Jesus starts preaching: ‘Blessed are the poor…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst.’  That doesn’t sound right.  That doesn’t sound like anything that would make me happy at all!  I don’t want to be the one who cries; I want to rejoice.  I don’t want to have anything lacking in my life; I want to have as much as possible.  I don’t want to be the person that others step and step over; I want to be respected and well thought of.  If I am going to be all these things that Jesus says, how can I possibly be blessed?  Do I really have to be a loser in life in order to be happy in the way that God wants?

In a word…no.  Jesus isn’t telling us that we should make ourselves the doormats of the word.  Rather, what he says is that even when you feel like a doormat, still, you are blessed.  Or to put it another way: It’s not the things you possess or the things you achieve that make you happy.  God makes you happy; the LORD makes you blessed; through what he does for you.

Being poor in spirit doesn’t make you happy; knowing that heaven is your home does.  Happiness doesn’t come from mourning the loss of loved ones; it comes from the knowledge that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  It’s not the hunger and thirst for righteousness that makes you happy; but the fact that God fills you to overflowing with the righteousness of Christ.  Jesus’ words here aren’t about us; they’re actually about Him!  Your heavenly Father sent his Son to live and die and then live again so that you would know his love and be saved.  Believing this makes you blessed.  Trusting in this makes you happy.  How?  Because it means you have been shown mercy; it means you have received righteousness; it means you will have the kingdom of heaven.

Don’t believe me?  Try these scenarios on for size.

There is a young woman who lives in a puddle of her own tears.  It’s not because of what other people have done to her, but rather from what she has done to herself.  Her past is full of regret and her future is full of fear.  She is poor in spirit and she mourns.  But Jesus calls her blessed.  Why?  Because he took even the ugliest and most damning sins of this woman to the cross and washed them away forever in his blood.  And so, she is comforted by his grace.

There is a young man who feels like a walking contradiction.  He knows what is right but keeps getting pulled towards what is wrong.  He feels helpless at times in his struggle against sin.  His track record shows his failures over and over.  He feels so meek and powerless.  He’s hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  But Jesus calls him blessed.  Why?  Because he has been given eternal righteousness in his baptism, and again as the Word reaches his heart, and once more as the body and blood of Jesus are offered in communion.  His hunger is sated and his thirst is quenched, and so, he is strengthened for the fight ahead.

There is an older woman who rarely thinks of herself.  Her heart almost never considers what she can get, but what she can give.  Her apartment is small, her wardrobe is dated, and there is no condo waiting for her in some tropical place.  But that’s just fine for her.  She is merciful and pure in heart.  She only wants to do what she can to help and serve others.  For that some think of her as odd or eccentric.  But Jesus calls her blessed.  Why?  Because she finds her rest and contentment in the promises of God.  She finds her fuel to keep on serving in any way that she can through the mercy that she has been shown.  She finds her peace in knowing that soon, she will see God.

There is an older man who loves to talk, especially about Jesus.  And he’s not afraid to bring this up with his kids, even though they wish he wouldn’t.  He asks them about their spiritual welfare, even as they moan and groan.  He encourages them to get to worship, even when they say it’s none of his business.  It’s hard for him to take the rejection or the ignoring.  But he won’t stop talking to anyone who will listen about the peace that only Jesus can give.  He wants to be a peacemaker even though he is persecuted behind his back.  His own kids sometimes call him annoying.  But Jesus call him blessed.  Why?  Because he speaks of what he knows down to the depths of his soul, that he is a child of God.  And no matter what he will rejoice and be glad, for his reward in heaven will be great.

Can you find yourself somewhere among the people Jesus calls blessed?  The puddle of tears, the walking contradiction, the one who always gives but never seems to receive, the one who proclaims peace to little or no response?  Look closely, and you will see that you are not just one of them; you’re all of them.  At times you may feel like you’re the only one out there, that no one sees the challenges you face.  But Jesus sees each and every one.  All the sins, all the weakness, all the fears, all the frustrations.  He sees them even more clearly than you.  And he looks on you and says, ‘Blessed.  Blessed are you.  You have been given my love.  You have received my forgiveness.  You will soon know my salvation.  So even in the midst of all the guilt and shame you may feel; even through all the trials and tears you may face; never, ever, forget: Blessed are you by me.’

In the eyes of everyone around them, these three men looked tremendously blessed.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had come from nothing, being brought in to Babylon as slaves.  But now they were important men who did important things.  They were excellent workers dedicated to their tasks.  They did their job well and they were rewarded for it.  But then, one day, they were told to love their boss and their job more than they loved God.  If they didn’t then all the blessings that everyone else could see would come to a quick and very painful end.

As they stood before the most powerful man in the world, they looked weak.  As they chose the path of righteousness rather than accommodation, they seemed stupid.  As they defied the great Nebuchadnezzar by clinging to their God, their words and actions seemed powerless.  To every satrap and soldier; to every governor and magistrate; they did not look blessed, but cursed. They were despised and condemned, bound hand and foot and falling into an inferno.  But they trusted that the LORD was their strength.  They trusted in his promise to bless.  And it did not matter to them if they lived or died.  It did not matter if they would be proven right before the wise ones of their day.  Because they were sure that great was their reward in heaven.

This is what it means to be blessed.  Whether you are at the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, whether all your dreams come true or come crashing down around you, whether you are shouting with the greatest of joy or crying the most bitter of tears. Through Jesus you are the object of God’s affection.  You are the recipient of God’s favor.  And so, you will be comforted; you will inherit the earth; you will be filled; you will be shown mercy; you will see God.  Yours is the kingdom of heaven. May we always be moved to say, ‘Because I have Jesus, I am blessed.’  Amen.

Let Your Light Shine

We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.  The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him:  Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.  Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.  Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.  But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. (1 John 2:3-11)

It was a moment I will not soon forget.  There I was, leaving the hospital after meeting and baptizing one of our St. Mark babies.  Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of someone who looks familiar.  I look more closely and I cannot believe my eyes. It’s Doctor Tom Osborne!  The national championship winning Husker coach.  The former United States congressman.  There he is, and he’s coming my way!  We were both heading to the parking garage and ended up walking side by side.  I didn’t know what to do.  I knew I had to say something, but what?  So I turned to him and said, ‘Are you are really Tom Osborne?’  ‘Yup,’ he replied.  Still kind of star struck I said, ‘Well, I just thought I oughta shake your hand.’  And we did, and then we went our separate ways.

I wonder what he was thinking when I asked him such a silly question?  ‘Who else would I be?  I’ve only been Tom Osborne for the last 80 years.  Actually, I’m his twin brother, Todd Osborne.  I get that all the time, but my name’s Henry Ripkowski and I work at Radio Shack.’  I mean, if I, some bozo from up north recognize him that quickly, then I shouldn’t have questioned it.  He’s Tom Osborne.  Sometimes, you can tell just by looking at someone who they really are.

Of course you can’t really know a person just by what they look like.  Your real identity goes deeper than that.  You are truly defined (or at least you should be) by what is inside of you and by what comes out of you.  Who you are is based on the values that you have deep down in your heart, and then, what these values move you to do.  Someone can claim to be a vegetarian, but if they then go out to eat and order a steak, they really aren’t what they claim to be.  Someone can say that they are a huge Huskers fan, but if they don’t know who Tom Osborne is, then it’s just not true. And someone can claim they are a Christian, but if their actions don’t reflect Christ, something’s not adding up.

That’s what the Apostle John was getting at in our text for today.  He wants us to consider whether or not who we are is being mirrored by what we do.  And I think we would all agree, that’s not an easy thought to consider.

If anyone were to ever ask me, ‘Do you know God?  Do you know the Lord?’  I would happily say, ‘Yes, yes I do.  I know the God who made the flowers and the trees.  I know the God who loves me and sent his Son for me.  Of course, I know God.’ But then John comes along and say, ‘We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.’  Suddenly I’m not so sure anymore.  I thought it was enough to know who he is and what he did.  But now God is telling me that there is more to my faith than just knowledge.  I can only know God if I obey his commands?  That’s…not good.  Because I don’t obey them.  Not all the time, anyway.  I don’t always honor and respect the authorities above me.  I don’t always treasure my own body and life as I should.  I don’t always keep my heart, mouth, and mind in check.  Maybe, I don’t really know him.

John continues, ‘The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.’  Is it really this bad?  I can’t be a liar, can I?  But how can I argue?  Just think of all the times I flat out refused to obey his precepts; not by accident, but on purpose.  And then you add all the times when I was trying to follow the right path, to do what is good, and failed.  If anyone were to look at me and see the real me, they would have to say, ‘He’s no Christian.  He’s nothing but a hypocrite.’

I want to dispute this, but John goes on.  ‘Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.  Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.  But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.’  Now maybe you’re thinking, ‘Hey, that’s not me!  I’m no hater.  I don’t ask God to smite those who rub me the wrong way.’  But what about your love?  God doesn’t want part-time love or sometimes love for others.  He expects it to be full time, 24/7 love that gives and shares and helps constantly.  And anything less than this falls into the hate category.  So no evil thoughts about your annoying co-worker.  No nasty words about your teacher.  And there better be a whole lot of help given to those who need it, even if they don’t deserve it, even if they don’t love you back.  Suddenly I’m seeing a whole lot of darkness in my life.

And then come the words that really drive a stake into my heart.  ‘This is how we know we are in him:  Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.’  Now I know I’m finished.  What point is there in going on?  Jesus who walked on water. Jesus who walked where angels trod.  Jesus who walked through hell.  I’m supposed to walk as he did?  He who did not open his mouth when lies were spoken about him.  He who always knew the answer to every trick question thrown his way.  He who could actually bring himself to touch a leper, to connect with a known adulterer, to befriend tax collectors.  HE WHO WAS GOD!  I could never claim to live in him because I can never, ever live like him.  With all these sins before us, how could we ever know God?

Well, not because of anything we do, but because of this.  ‘Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.  Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.’  After all we have been confronted with, how can John possibly say that the truth of the new command is seen in us?  How can this be?

Well, remember a month ago when we sang these words: ‘Silent night!  Holy night!  Son of God, love’s pure light.’?  Jesus is the pure light of love that was sent into our world.  He came and shone for us even though we didn’t deserve a single watt.  As Jesus walked and talked during his days on earth, he didn’t shine physically.  But the rays of his holiness shone more brightly than any earthly light.  He glowed as obeyed all his Father’s commands.  He shimmered as he walked to Calvary’s cross, loving all who would not love him, carrying your sins and mine.  He dazzled as he suffered the punishment for every time we disobeyed, rebelled and lived as hypocrites.  He gleamed as he rose triumphantly from the grave.  Because of Jesus, your sins are forgiven.  Because of His light, you are guaranteed a home in heaven.  This is the new covenant that God has made.  This is the true light that is already shining.  And this light makes a difference.

I once read about a street in some booming metropolis that had a super high crime rate.  There were burglaries, assaults, drug deals, you name it.  The police tried to change things in the area, but with limited success.  Finally, they decided to install extra streetlights.  Practically overnight, the crime rate went down.  Where the light is shining, deeds of darkness start to fade away.

The light of Christ is shining on you.  The message of salvation is has blasted away the darkness of sin and death.  Guilt and shame and fear are gone.  You will not die, but live.  And because that light of Jesus is shining in you, the deeds of darkness are going to fade away.  We are going to be more and more Christ-like.  God made us Christians and we’re going to live the way Christians live.  We are going to be kinder, gentler, more patient, more loving.  We are going to care as much about others as we care about ourselves.  We are going to shine so that others may see and glorify our Father in heaven.

Imagine, if you would, that a flashlight has a personality, like a character from a Disney movie.  How excited do you think it would be every time it gets taken out and used.  Wouldn’t it be thrilled to help people find their way in the dark?  Wouldn’t it be delighted to help find what was lost?  Now, can the flashlight take any credit for shining?  No, because the battery gives it power and the owner is the one who flips on the switch.  But still, the flashlight is just happy to be useful. It’s not worried that it will get thrown out if it doesn’t do it’s job; it’s just happy to shine.  In the same way we are just as happy to live as God’s people. We don’t feel any pressure that we have to be good enough for God to care.  We just know that through Jesus we are his treasured possession.  And so, we can’t wait to shine, for everybody.

For the checkout lady at Wal-mart, that we would give her a please and a thank you and a smile, no matter how fast or slow that she goes.  For the recipients of your emails and the readers of your Facebook posts, that they would get words that would build them up in love no matter if their words tore you down.  For the loner sitting in the cafeteria, that you would be willing to give them some company, no matter how different or unique they may be.  For the nameless, homeless man at the stoplight, that they would some measure of your attention, and even, some care, even if you worry that they don’t deserve it.  This is the light that we shine, that we LOVE to shine, because we are helping others, love others, just as Christ has loved and helped us.

Is this going to be hard to do?  Hard to change?  You bet.  So we better remember that Christ is the power in us.  Without Christ, we can’t be Christians.  Without Christ our light is worthless.  But with him, it drives away the darkness.  His perfect life, his sacrificial death, his glorious resurrection, his constant love and forgiveness is the only and best spiritual energy that we need.  And so we return to it, again and again.  In the Word that speaks his love; in Baptism that poured it out upon us; in Communion that feeds it to us.  And the more we fill up with this power, all the more will Jesus shine.

And so, my fellow flashlights, let’s shine. Let’s make it so that no one would doubt that you and I were Christians.  Hang on to Jesus and learn from him that you may walk more like him. Rejoice in his forgiving love for you, and use it to give that same forgiving love to others. Use his holy commandments as your guide for joyful Christian living, and so show to others what peace is found through his new command.  Let your light shine always.  Amen.

Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” 4 But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”  5 And now the LORD says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength— 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  7 This is what the LORD says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel— to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”  Isaiah 49:1-7

Back in World War II there was no shortage of technological advances and new devices that were made, most in the interest of warfare.  There were radio controlled bombs, cannons that shot 11,000 pound shells, remote-controlled mines.  But perhaps the most bizarre invention was concocted by British secret agents: the rat bomb.  An agent got hold of a hundred rats by posing as a student and claiming he needed them for laboratory tests.  The dead rats were cut open, filled with plastic explosives, and then, sewn back up.  What would they do with such a bizarre weapon?  Well, the plan was to find a way to drop them near coal-powered furnaces or boilers in Germany.  The assumption was that once they were spotted, the rats would immediately be thrown into the fire.  And then…BOOM!  Explosion…destruction…chaos.  It’s a pretty ingenious idea for a hidden weapon when you think about it.  Who would ever suspect something dangerous about a dead rat?

That’s kind of the whole purpose of a hidden weapon, isn’t it?  The element of surprise.  You don’t want your enemy to recognize the danger that is before them.  You don’t want them to be on their guard.  You want them to be caught unawares by your attack.  That way you can get the jump on them.  You would be hard-pressed to find anything much more dangerous than a hidden weapon.  It leaves you with little chance to defend yourself, and susceptible to a quick demise.

This is how we usually think of a hidden weapon.  But that, then, prompts an interesting question: What is God doing with one of these?  Perhaps you didn’t notice it in our first lesson this morning from Isaiah.  It was revealed to us in verse two. ‘He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.’  Sounds kind of mysterious, doesn’t it?  A sword tucked away out of sight.  An arrow hidden from view.  What is this all about?

Well, let me clear one thing up right away.  Although Isaiah is the one who records these words, he is not the hidden weapon.  No, the LORD is speaking of none other than Jesus, the promised Messiah.  This becomes evident when the LORD says, ‘I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’  And again, when he says, ‘You are my servant…in whom I will display my splendor.’  Who else could this be but the one whom John the Baptist points to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?  There can be no doubt, Christ is this hidden weapon of God.

But now, even more questions come.  Why is Jesus being hidden?  How is salvation supposed to come to the ends of the earth if he is tucked away?  How is the LORD’s splendor going to be displayed if this weapon is concealed?  And why would God hide him anyway?  Wouldn’t he want him to be out in the open for all the world to see?  To be visible to everyone?  Maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking?  Sometimes, God doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

But when you consider Jesus, who he is, and what he possesses, the picture kind of makes sense.  Who is Jesus?  He is God.  He is the infinite Creator of the universe, he is the Almighty Lord of Hosts, he is the omnipresent Holy One who exudes the brilliant glory of thousand stars.  But wait…he is also man.  He is one that came forth from his mother’s womb.  He is one who held little children in his arms.  He is one who ate simple meals, wore basic attire, grew tired and weary, felt joy and sadness, just like the rest of us.  Do you see it now?  Jesus is the glory of God, hidden in flesh.  He is the splendor of the Almighty, concealed in a human body.  This is what our God is like.  He is the God who hides himself.

Do you ever feel like God is kind of hidden from your life?  Do you ever feel like God is more absent than present as you live out your days?  Like, when the bills pile up and the stress of making ends meet weighs you down.  Where’s God?  When your chronic pain continues and you see no relief in sight.  Where’s the Lord?  When your kids behave poorly and make bad choices and you can’t understand why.  Where has he gone?  When sickness comes and disrupts your life, when serious illness arrives and brings the worry of death.  Where is he now?  Why doesn’t he just fix these problems and make things better so that I and all others around me can know that he is here?

Why doesn’t he reveal himself just a little bit more?  Why not make our moderately sized Lutheran church here grow?  At least to the point where both services are full, with newcomers willing to hear what God has to say.  Why not give our little Lutheran school a boost in its numbers so that more children can get to know their Savior?  And while we’re at it, why not give all Christians a little more prominence, let them succeed a bit more?  Let Christians be blessed with more money.  Let more Christians acquire positions of power and authority.  Let Christianity be treated as something virtuous and not simply as a punchline. Then this world would be a better place, wouldn’t it?

Why does God keep hiding?  Why doesn’t he just reveal himself fully to the world in all his power and glory?  Why doesn’t he unveil his might and majesty with countless miracles coming from Christians around the globe?  Wouldn’t that do the trick?  Wouldn’t that bring an end to all the misery and woe on this earth?  Wouldn’t that bring more people into his kingdom?  Better yet, why doesn’t he just zap all the evil-doers at once and make this world a perfect place with all the nasty folks gone?

Why?  Because that’s not who God is, and that’s now how he operates.  Our Lord is one who conceals himself.  He has, in the past, revealed his glory in magnificent ways, in powerful ways.  In Jesus, he showed it time and again – healing the sick, walking on water, changing water into wine, feeding thousands, even raising the dead.  But when the time came to truly display his splendor, how was his glory shown?  In the Lamb of God, bleeding from his head, his back ripped and torn apart, and holes hammered into his hands and feet.  It was on the cross that the hidden weapon of God was truly revealed.  Not to scatter the peoples with rage, but to gather his people in by grace.  Not to destroy the wicked with judgment, but to save them by paying the redemption price.  This is the splendor of the LORD.  This is the glory of our God.

This is how it had to be.  God’s plan of salvation wasn’t about forcing people to submit to him by the power of his might.  No, it was about drawing people to himself through the power of his love.  God wanted a relationship with his people that was personal and precious, that was built on the foundation of his mercy.  So, he hides himself in the form of a servant, one who is willing to sacrifices his own life for us and for our sins.  He hides himself in the simple means of Word, of water, of bread and wine, bringing immediate forgiveness to our hearts. He hides himself in order that we see him for what he truly is: The loving Lamb of God who brings salvation to the ends of the earth.

This means, then, that our lives as Christians are not based on what we see or feel.  It is based entirely on faith, on trust in what God had done for us in Christ.  So sometimes, God hides himself.  He hides himself by not blessing us with vast amounts of power and wealth.  Why?  So that we don’t forget the great treasure that HE is.  He hides himself by not fully healing us from sickness and pain.  Why?  So that we never lose our reliance on him and keep longing for our heavenly home.  He hides himself by allowing Christians to suffer in this world.  Why?  So that we never fall into the trap of thinking that we have figured everything out and don’t need him anymore.  He hides himself in the best of ways so that our souls never stop yearning for him.  So that we keep longing for the day when he will be hidden no more.  So that we keep looking forward to that moment when we will see him in all his glorious splendor.

Do you remember Simeon?  He was that guy who met Joseph and Mary in the temple courts as they were bringing the infant Jesus to be circumcised.  If there was ever a moment where God looked hidden, few would be more noticeable than this. The great weapon of salvation to crush the serpent’s head; the awesome hammer of God to shatter the chains of sin; the amazing armament of the Almighty to obliterate the terrors of the grave; is being cradled in the arms of his mother, still unable to hold up his own head.  But beneath all of this weakness and hiddenness, what did Simeon see?  I’ll let him tell you himself, ‘Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ (Luke 2:29-32)

Marvel at the greatness of our God who works in this most mysterious way.  Rejoice in the comfort he brings as he hides himself in humility and weakness.  For in so doing, he brings the light of his grace to the entire world.  He offers the fullness of his love to you.  Jesus is the hidden weapon in the hand of God that has won your salvation.  So, no matter what you face for the rest of your days, you will be at peace.

And this is a peace that needs to be shared.  If God is a hidden God, then people aren’t going to find him on their own.  They have to be told.  The light must be shone.  Be like John and simply say to your neighbor, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’  Be like Andrew and go tell your brother, ‘We have found the one!’  Be like Philip and invite your friend by saying, ‘Come and see.’  Be the light that shines to these Gentiles.  Be God’s hidden weapon that brings salvation.  Be the one who brings glory to the LORD by sharing his peace.  Amen.

Anointed With Power

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism  but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.  You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.  You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—  how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  Acts 10:34-38

In the ministry that God has given me over the years, I have been privileged to perform any number of baptisms.  The most common, of course, were the ones that happened in church, with godparents standing by and grandparents looking on.  There have also been ones that were done in the hospital, like when a little child not yet even a full day old gets a bath from God.  But it’s not only little ones that I have baptized.  There was the twenty-something year old Christian wife who had never been told what Baptism is really all about.  About an hour after hearing of God’s gift, she met me in the sanctuary anxious to receive it.  There was the sixty-year-old aunt of a member who was in the hospital for a variety of issues.  Her nephew told her about the peace that baptism brings, and soon after there I was in jeans and a t-shirt speaking God’s name upon her.  And then, there was the 80-year-old dad and grandpa who was nearing the end of his life.  He could barely speak as every breath for him was labored and pained.  After I quickly told him about this washing of water and Word he sputtered, ‘Give it to me.’  With little time to spare we dispensed with all formality and somewhat messily poured out God’s grace.  The next day he went home to his Father.

All of the baptisms that I have been a part of have been meaningful and special in their own way.  No matter the time, the place, or the age of the people, each one was awesome because of what God was doing.  But none of them have been quite as unique as Jesus’ baptism.  I never poured the water and then saw the sky ripped open to reveal heaven.  I never said ‘Amen’ and then watched the Holy Spirit come down from on high.  I never made the sign of the cross and then heard a booming and penetrating voice say, ‘This one is mine.’  I’ve never been a part of a baptism that looked and sounded so miraculous.

Have you ever wondered why this is?  Have you ever questioned why ours seemed so ordinary and Jesus’ was so extraordinary?  Because at first glance it might seem like it should be the other way around.  In baptism, we who are born in darkness are brought into the light; we who are slaves are given freedom; we who are doomed to death are given life; a child of the devil becomes a child of God.  But Jesus, he didn’t need all that.  I mean, he already was the Son of God.  He already was the light of the world.  The chains of sin did not hold him and the fires of hell would not consume him.  So why wouldn’t Jesus get the boring baptism and we get the exciting one?  Because other than this being the starter’s pistol for Jesus’ public ministry, there doesn’t seem to be that much else going on.  It feels like Jesus is just doing what he’s supposed to do.

But actually, there’s more to it than that.  Listen again to what Peter said and see if you can catch what took place.  ‘You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power…’  This wasn’t Jesus just going through the motions.  This wasn’t Jesus performing some act of obedience.  This was Jesus being given a most blessed gift.  This was Jesus receiving the Spirit and power.  This is about Jesus getting what he needed to be our Savior.

Now, I can hear the objections already.  ‘But Pastor, how could Jesus need anything?  He’s God!  Isn’t that what you were raving about on Christmas Day?  That all the bigness of God was contained in the smallness of a child.  So how can he who is all-knowing and all-powerful be getting anything from his baptism?’  I’m so glad you asked.

Do you remember any other times in Jesus’ life where he looked for and received some spiritual benefit?  Like, when he was twelve and got left behind in Jerusalem, he was in the temple courts asking questions of the teachers, wanting to gain knowledge and then later it says that he grew in wisdom.  When he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness he turned away his enemies advances through the Word of God and then angels came and attended him.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed bitterly to his Father and then an angel came and strengthened him.  Time and again we are told how Jesus spent time alone in prayer.  Why would he pray if he did not really want something from his Father?

So, what does this all mean?  That Jesus was somehow less than God?  That maybe he wasn’t really almighty and omniscient?  That he didn’t fully possess all that he needed in order to be the Christ?  No, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He was and is and forever will be…God, in the fullest sense of that word.  But that doesn’t limit his ability to receive even more.  You see, Jesus isn’t just God, he’s man too.  And while he was physically present on this earth he set aside some of his glory.  He didn’t make full use of his divinity.  So according to his human nature he could receive spiritual strength, he could be given more of the Spirit, he could gain more wisdom and power.  So, when John baptized him in the Jordan River he was anointed and received from the Father just what he needed to be exactly what the angels proclaimed him to be at Bethlehem: the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

Now maybe all this talk about Jesus’ baptism is making you feel a little less thrilled about your own. ‘Great, so not only does Jesus get that big show but he also gets big gifts too?  Man, all I got out of my baptism was this lousy certificate.  What a rip off!’  I’m pretty sure you all realize that the last bit was kind of a joke.  And I’m also pretty sure that you would never dare to speak such words.  But, do you ever find yourself not really caring all that much about your baptism?  Do you ever feel as though it wasn’t that big of a deal? Do you ever behave as though it meant nothing to you at all?

As Lutherans, we tend to have an acute understanding of our own sin.  In almost every time of worship we spend some time talking about it, confessing it, making sure we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we can save ourselves.  But if we never move beyond this thought, we end up with some other ones that are pretty awful.  Like, ‘I’m never going to be perfect anyway, so why even try?’ or ‘I’m already forgiven for all that I’ve done, so why do these sins even matter?’  or ‘Yeah, I know God says this is wrong, but it would be so hard to change, so I’ll just rely on his grace and keep doing it.’  Is that the attitude of a redeemed child of God?  Is that that mindset of one who has been freed from his slavery to sin and been made a servant of righteousness?  Certainly not!

Remember what God has done for you.  Remember what has happened to you in your baptism. Remember what Paul wrote to Titus: ‘But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.’  God came to you with the utmost of kindness and the fullness of love.  Not because you were so good.  Not because you were so deserving.  But because you were so desperate.  Because our need was so great.  So, it was mercy that saved us.  But he didn’t stop there.  ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior…’  You were washed of your sin.  You were reborn by his grace.  You were filled with his Spirit.  In other words, in your baptism, God did for you what he did for his Son in the Jordan River.  He anointed you with the Spirit, and with power.

If you think that your baptism was normal, average, or ordinary…think again.  At the baptism of Jesus, we find the Holy Trinity, and at your baptism the Trinity finds you.  At the baptism of Jesus, he received strength to live a holy life that fulfilled all righteousness.  At your baptism, Jesus covered you with the robe of his righteousness AND filled you with strength to live a righteous life yourself.  At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit came down upon Jesus so that he could resist temptation, do good to all he came into contact with and preach the good news to the all.  In your baptism, the Spirit was poured into you so that you might resist temptation, do good to your every neighbor and share the good news with everyone.  At the baptism of Jesus, the Father said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’  In your baptism, the Father says, ‘You I love, for you I have redeemed, with you I am well-pleased.’

You have been anointed with power.  Does that sound ordinary to you?  Does that sound boring or useless?  So then, use your baptism.  Use it at the start of each day to remember who you are and what God has made you to be.  Use it in the middle of your day to fuel your faith to follow God’s righteous paths.  Use it at the end of the day to wash all your guilt away.  Use it whenever the devil attacks, use it whenever temptations come, use it whenever challenges arise.  Use it and you will find yourself becoming more and more like Jesus, the Anointed One, who anointed you.

And if you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a look at my twins.  When they were born they only weighed about a combined six pounds.  With the potential dangers that comes from being born so early, baptism wasn’t going to wait until they got home.  Sticking my hands inside of their isolets I dunked one finger in a small beaker of water and dribbled a cross of water on each of their foreheads and spoke:  I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  It couldn’t have looked more average or more ordinary.  But through such simple means they were anointed with power, and now, here they are, singing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

If you have been baptized then you have been anointed with power.  You have been given the Spirit.  You have been made a God’s beloved child.  So remember you baptism, and live by the power it brings.  Amen.

How Far He Comes

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”  After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.  (Matthew 2:1-12)

How far would you be willing to go for someone that you’ve never met?  Not how far would you be willing to go outside your comfort zone.  Not how much risk or danger are you willing to endure.  No, all I mean, is mileage.  How far would you be willing to travel to go see someone that you have never met face-to-face?

For Shannon Murray of Ohio, the answer was 1,223 miles.  You see, Shannon met this guy, Charles, on Facebook.  They hit it off right away. They started texting regularly.  They conversed online.  And over the course of a month they became very close.  But there was one problem.  Charles lives in Abilene, Texas.  It’s kind of hard to make such a long-distance relationship last.  So, Shannon did the most practical thing in the world.  She quit her job, packed up all her stuff, and moved to Texas.  All to go and meet this guy in person for the very first time.

When Shannon took off to meet this new man in her life, she knew it wasn’t normal behavior.  She even thought to herself, ‘I must be crazy.’  But she had a hunch that Charles would be her one true love, so she went for it.  This hunch turned out to be a pretty good one, because on Christmas Day, just a few days after she arrived, Charles proposed.  He told a reporter, ‘You don’t find true love every day, so when you find it, just take a chance.’  Shannon, of course, said yes.  And they tied the knot just a couple of months later.

Does that sound a bit crazy to you?  To travel to some far-off place, to meet someone that you have only read about, all in the hopes that something good will be waiting for you at the end?  How much information would you need before you would decide to go on such a journey?  How great would the blessing have to be on the other end?  How far would be too far for you?

When the magi started their trip to Israel, I have to think that there were other wise men around that thought they were being pretty stupid.  ‘You’re going where? Because you saw a star? Why would you want to go to that backwoods place? To see a child! And why are you packing up that gold, incense, and myrrh?  You’re gonna give it to a kid!  That stuff is worth a fortune!  Oh, so you believe that God has been born in Israel.  Melchior, Casper, Balthasar, you’ve lost your mind.’

We don’t know exactly where these magi were from.  Matthew only tells us that they came ‘from the east.’  Most likely they hailed from the region of Persia and Babylon.  Most estimates say that these men traveled nearly as far as Shannon Murray did: about 1,000 miles.  But the big difference is their travel didn’t include speeds up to 70 miles per hour, bucket seats with temperature control, and a comfy bed at the Motel 6.  No, they had to ride for months on camels or donkeys, set up their own tents each night, and be on guard for bandits and robbers.  You think it’s tiring to take a three-day trip to Florida now?  Imagine how grueling it must have been for these magi!  And for what?  To try and find someone they’ve never met, but only read about, all in the hopes that there would be something great for them at the end.

Over the years I have read all kinds of fascinating theories about the magi and this star.  Some say that the star had to have been a miraculous one placed into the heavens by God for this one-time purpose. Others think it was a natural occurrence of planets and stars aligning at just the right time and in just the right way that that the wise men would see as special.  Some insist that the magi would have arrived within a few weeks of Jesus being born.  Others claim they couldn’t possibly have shown up until at least a year later.  Now, all of this is interesting to consider and ponder, but spend too much time there, and you miss the point.

Because here’s what really matters.  The magi saw a special star in the sky and they connected it to the Messiah.  Somehow, they knew that this star meant that the king of the Jews had been born.  So without hesitation they came to worship him.  It didn’t matter how long the trip would be or how difficult the journey might be.  It didn’t matter what others might think of them or how much it might cost.  Somehow, these Gentiles, a thousand miles from Jerusalem, knew that the coming of Christ meant the coming of their salvation.  So, they were going to meet him, no matter how far they had to go.

There is something absolutely astounding about all this.  But no, I’m not talking about the magi, I’m talking about the Lord.  What would have happened if there was no star?  What if there had been no signal for these men from the east to find?  Would they ever have known the truth?  Would they ever have found forgiveness?  And what if it never occurred to them to look for the sign?  What if they had never been told about the king of the Jews and what he came to do?  Would they have ever found hope?  Would they have ever discovered salvation?

To think of the great lengths that the LORD, the God of Israel, went to in order to show these foreigners their Savior, it takes your breath away.  God already had his people, his chosen nation, but he wanted more.  He wanted to bring people in from every tribe and nation, from every culture and country.  So, when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, and made sure that even the Gentiles would see that their light had come.  No distance was too far for God to go to bring his people home.

There’s another wrinkle to the Charles and Shannon story that I didn’t mention before.  Maybe you thought Shannon had some ulterior motive for making such a crazy move.  Like, maybe Shannon didn’t have much money and Charles was rich.  Or perhaps Shannon was dazzled by Charles’ good looks and will soon grow tired of him.  But would it shock you to learn that Charles has cerebral palsy?  He is able to walk, but it’s certainly not easy for him. He looks like your average guy, but he’s not going to be signing a modeling contract any time soon.  Shannon didn’t fall for this guy for superficial reasons.  She traveled so far and took such a risk because she truly loved him.

You might be tempted to think that God sent the star to these wise men because they were special, because he knew that they would be willing to go so far for him.  But really, the only reason they were willing to go so far is because God came to them first. It was God who convinced them that they weren’t really wise, not in the way that God demands.  It was God who revealed to them their desperate need for a Savior.  And it was God who showed them that Jesus, their light, had come.  Out of love for these wicked Gentiles, he changed their hearts.  In love for these lost souls, he gave them great faith.  And that mercy and grace is what had them racing to Israel to worship their Savior and King.  It wasn’t about how far they went to find their God; it was about how far God went to find them.

And this is the joy that we, as Gentiles, get celebrate at Epiphany. Look at how far out God came to save us.

You can focus all you want on how far you are willing to go for God and how dedicated you are to Him, but it’s never going to bring you joy.  Because God doesn’t grade on a curve.  He’s not going to take the top 50%, 75%, or 90%.  He sets the standard in his Word of 100% dedication and commitment, at all times.  But we don’t have that, do we?  What God demands of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, is that we live exactly the way he wants us to.  Following his commands, even when it’s hard.  Obeying his Word, even when it hurts.  He wants us to always be serving and loving our neighbors, and always be worshiping and giving glory to Him. It is more than even the wisest of wise men could achieve.  But God still demands it, and promises eternal punishment for those who fail.

And yet, still, he comes.  Even for us wicked Gentiles, he comes.  He comes so far, descending from heaven above to be born in Bethlehem.  He comes so far, walking the lonely road to Calvary where pain and suffering await him. He comes so far, being uplifted to his cross, taking the punishment meant for us.  He comes so far, crossing over from death to life, tearing to pieces the cords of death forever.  He comes so far, with love so great, that we might have joy both now and forevermore.

And so, he continues to come to us, even to this very day.  He came to you in your Baptism, giving you faith, marking you as his own with water and Word and washing you clean.  He comes to you in his Word, opening your eyes to see the truth, showing you the path of salvation and setting you apart for glorious good works in his name.  He comes to you in his Supper, offering his own body and blood of forgiveness that you may feast on his goodness and find strength for your soul.

And here’s the best part: in order to find all this joy, this love and this strength, you don’t have to travel 1,223 miles.  You don’t have to wait until you see a special star in the sky.  All you have to do is pick up your Bible to see and experience how far God comes to save and strengthen you.  All you have to do is come here, Sunday after Sunday, to find these joys unending.

How far would you be willing to go for someone you’ve never seen?  If it meant eternal life, you would travel to the ends of the earth.  But rejoice with me, dear friends, that you don’t have to.  For your God has come so far for you, crossing all the limits of time and space and even understanding, all so that you can be his, forever.  All praise and glory be to our most gracious God. Amen.

Abba, Father

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Galatians 4:4-7)

I have a confession to make here this morning.  I don’t love your children like I love my own.  Now maybe you don’t think that’s all too shocking.  Perhaps you’re wondering why this is even worth a confession.  But think about it.  All Christians are told to love their neighbor as themselves.  Your kids and my kids are both my neighbor, so they should be getting an equal amount of love from me.  You are also my neighbors, so as I love you I should also be loving your flesh and blood.  Then you add to this the fact that I am your pastor; that I am your children’s pastor.  So, all the more I should be the most loving shepherd that I can be to them.  Just as much as I am to my own.  But, like I said, I don’t love your children like I love my own.

Now this isn’t because I hate your kids.  It isn’t because they’ve done something to make me mad at them.  It isn’t because I think that my offspring is better than yours.  Nor is it because I’m some kind of heartless Grinch.  Rather, it’s simply because Silas, Isabella, Levi and Noelle are mine.  They are my sons and my daughters and I am their Father.  And as you take a look at or think about your own children, I’m sure you would agree, that makes all the difference in the world.

It’s one thing to care for someone else’s child who falls scrapes their knee.  It’s another to comfort your little princess who has tears rolling down her cheeks.  It’s one thing to cheer for one of the kids on our school’s basketball team when they score a bucket.  But it’s not the same as the pride that comes from watching your little champ succeed.  If I hear the voice of a child crying out for help, I’m going to run to that voice and do what I can.  But if I hear the voice of my little one, anxious calling for me, ‘DADDY!’  You better believe that my heart is racing and my legs are churning just that much more.

The connection and the relationship between parent and child is a precious one.  And because of this bond kids quickly learn who it is that they can rely on.  They know who it is that provides for them.  They know who it is that looks after them.  When they need something, they know who to call.  When they are hurting, they know who can help.  When they are struggling, they know who is there to lift them up.  They could have all kinds of other adults in their life, positive role models galore, but nothing is going to compare to the impact that Mom and Dad have.

Yet, there are limits to what Mom and Dad can do, isn’t there?  As much as we want to keep our kids safe, there is no stopping the all the accidents that might take place.  As much we try to keep our kids healthy, there are some sicknesses that just can’t be avoided.  As much as we want to bring our children joy and happiness, there will be days of sadness.  People will eventually be mean.  Disappointment will inevitably come.  Even death will ultimately arrive.   And no matter how much calling and crying that any of us may do, there is no mother or father on earth that can do away with all of this.  Even if all the moms and dads around the world banded together, combined all of their love, all of their strength, all of their wisdom and effort…still, it would not be enough.  Because, there is something deeper and darker at play.

In the verse, just before our text, Paul spoke about this deeper and darker problem: ‘So also, when we were children, we were in slavery…’  As much as we hate to hear it, as much as it makes our modern ears wince, we are slaves.  Jesus himself said, ‘Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34) To have even sinned once means that we are chained to sin permanently. And making it even worse is what it brings.  ‘Death came to all men, because all sinned.’ (Rom. 5:12) Every funeral, coffin and tombstone is a testimony to this bondage we have.  And dragging us down all the more is this: ‘He who does what is sinful is of the devil.’ (1 John 3:8) We are enslaved to the ancient enemy of God, shackled to him and his rebellion.  And where else would that send us, but to the fiery dungeons of hell?

Look around you.  Do you not see all kinds evidence that this slavery is real?  That no one is perfect.  That not a one of us has done what is good and right in God’s sight.  That we keep on hurting and harming and warring and raging and fighting.  That everyone eventually dies.  Look within you.  Can you not feel the guilt resting upon your conscience?  Do you not recognize your selfish desires that continually lead you astray?  Do you even want to consider how many transgressions you racked up for yourself in 2016?  We are slaves in the worst possible way.  Not because of what someone did to us, but rather, because of what we did to ourselves.

I don’t know how many times it has happened in my time as a Father.  Far too many to count.  One of my kids does something that gets them in trouble or puts them in harm’s way.  Like carrying too many dishes at once and dropping and breaking one of them.  Like being too wild and crazy, running around the house, and then crashing into a chair or a table.  Like being too rough with each other and then having one of them ending up hurt.  In all these instances, they have been warned, been instructed, been told not to be so foolish.  But still, they do it anyway.  And when it happens, I find it ever so hard to feel sorry for them.  After all, it’s their own fault, and they knew better.  But often all it takes is for their cries to reach my ears, and I find myself moved to go and help them in their need.

When we consider our slavery to sin, death, and the devil, there is no reason for us to expect any help from God.  Why would he care?  Why should he care?  He has shown to us the way of life but we chose instead the path of death.  He has revealed to us the truth but we preferred instead the devil’s lies.  We could cry out to him again and again, but why would he listen?  We are not his true children.  We are not ones that a holy God could call his own.

And yet, our Father speaks.  ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.’   Instead of leaving us alone, instead of abandoning us the way that we did to him, instead of leaving us to wallow in our tears forever, he sends his Son.  He is sent as a human being to live God’s vision of perfection for us.  He is sent to live under God’s law for us because we have not.  He is sent to use his mind to love, his mouth to teach, his arms to hold and to heal.  He is sent to replace our broken life with his perfect one, so that when God looks at us, all he sees is a perfect son and a holy daughter.

Already this is more than we deserve, but still he goes further.  The Son is sent to redeem us, to buy us back, to release us from our slavery.  So, he makes himself a slave.  He steps in front of all the slings and arrows of Satan’s accusations and lets them pierce his own soul.  He takes up all the chains of our sins and has them fasten him to the cross.  He makes the full payment of death and damnation as his Father punishes him in our place.  And then he destroys the shackles of the grave by rising to live again.

Do you see what has happened?  God loved you like you his own even though you were not his own.  ‘So, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.’  You belong in God’s family.  You are welcome in his home.  You have as much a right to be in your Father’s presence and to enjoy his blessings as Christ himself.  Because of what Jesus, your brother, has done, your Father in heaven is absolutely delighted to call you his own; overjoyed to say, ‘You are mine.’

And here is what this means for you, right now.  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”  You are God’s Son, so you get to cry out to him whenever and wherever you please and about whatever you need.  You are God’s daughter so you know he will listen to every cry rising from your lips, every trouble that rests upon your soul.  You are God’s child, so you don’t have to fear ever again, for you know that he will never leave you nor forsake you.  You are God’s heir, so you have every right to receive all good things from him, to be eternally blessed by him.  You are children of God who have his own Spirit living in you.  So, whenever disaster strikes, whenever troubles lurk, whenever needs arise, whenever danger threatens, you have the right to look up to heaven and cry, ‘Dad, help!’ and know with 100% certainty that he will do everything in his power to do just that.

So, cry out to him.  Cry out to your Abba Father again and again.  Make 2017 a year of invocation and prayer, a year of petition and intercession.  Make this the year that your heart-to-heart talks with God never cease.  He has loved you like his own, even though you were not his own, and you know that he’s never going to stop.  So make this the year that your heart finds rest not in the strength of your own hands, but in the hands of him who became a man to set you free.  Amen.