Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Jesus sends the Paraclete – Pentecost (May 31, 2020)

May 31, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Jesus Sends the Paraclete

John 16:5-11

Check out the full worship service on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7eK619bsgC0

 

I am going to him who sent me… It is for your good that I am going away” (Jn 16:5,7). The words of Jesus to his disciples in this reading from John 16 are a bit confusing in the context of this Sunday. Because by now, Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on Easter Sunday is 50 days ago – almost 2 months. And the neat part about that is Pentecost actually happened 50 days (7 weeks) after Jesus’ resurrection. So, we understand the timeline to a degree. Although, I’m sure that the disciples were on much more of an emotional rollercoaster during those 50 days than we were. The timeframe is the same.

So, when we read the words today, “I am going to him who sent me… It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (Jn 16:5-7), naturally, we are thinking of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as the context of these words. That being the case, we are probably thinking, “What?! No! Jesus it would be soooo much easier to proclaim the good news of salvation if you were still here. You could do world tours visiting every major city every few years. You could book special guest preaching engagements, and all the world would see that you are most definitely alive and our Savior from sin. What do you mean you have to go?! How could this be for our good?!”

Well, despite our reading these verses today, and them still being very fitting for Pentecost Sunday, the context is not just before the Ascension. The departure he is talking about – the “going away” – is not strictly referring to his Ascension. Jesus actually spoke these words on Maundy Thursday – the night he was betrayed, the day before he died on the cross. So, although yes, he is talking about his coming departure when he ascends into heaven and then sends the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, this isn’t the full picture. The departure he is talking about includes his death and resurrection. It’s the full picture we confess in the creed: “I believe that Jesus Christ… suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried… The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). So that’s the full picture we are talking about here. That’s the “going away” that has to happen for our good – all of it wrapped up into one “package”.

Now we can understand these words rightly. Now, it makes sense that he says, “It is for your good that I am going away” (Jn 16:7). If Jesus didn’t “go away” to the cross and grave, well then, our salvation would not be complete. You and I would still be in our sins – lost and condemned creatures destined for hell. And put yourself into the context of the disciples who couldn’t see past the cross. Jesus has been warning them that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed” (Mk 8:31). And now comes that time when he must “go away”. They are so completely stunned and frightened by these words that they can’t even think to question further, “Where are you really going?” I mean, this is Jesus – the Son of God. He can’t really die, can he? This isn’t the end, is it? They were so completely accustomed to Jesus and so glad to have him with them that they thought the worst thing that could happen to them was for him to be taken from them. They should have caught that he did say he would rise again in three days. They should have caught that he says right here that he is going away to the Father. But they can’t see past his suffering and death to ask where he is really going, or, the more important question, why is he going.

Sometimes we too get so caught up in the fact that Jesus is not visibly present with us here that we forget to ask why he ascended. “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7). And I think I know what you might be thinking, because I think it too. In fact, I struggled with it anew while working with this text this week. I ask, “Why couldn’t Jesus die and rise – accomplishing our salvation – and then just stay here on earth?” Wouldn’t that be better? The answer is threefold. First, and most importantly, that isn’t what God did. So, although we might think it is a better plan, it simply isn’t, because God knows and always does what is best. Second, if Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven, not all of Scripture would be fulfilled. His ascension was prophesied in Psalm 68(:18) and quoted by Paul in Ephesians 4(:8-10) as being fulfilled by Jesus’ ascension.

Finally, and the reason I want to focus on more today, is that by thinking it would be better if Jesus remained on earth after his resurrection, we are severely downplaying the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember that the Holy Spirit is God – no less than the Father or the Son. I think so often we talk about the persons of the Trinity that they actually get separated in our minds. The Holy Spirit is God just as Jesus is God. God still dwells with us to this day with all the same power and authority we see after Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave. What I’m trying to say is, I think it would do us some good to remember and emphasize the unity of the Trinity – especially as we highlight the different persons of the Trinity. God is with you still today! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23).

Now, we’ve seen that the departure Jesus talked about meant the whole picture from suffering and death to resurrection and ascension. This is all necessary for your salvation and to fulfill Scripture. Let’s talk just a little more on what Jesus’ physical presence offered verses the universal and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. When the disciples had Jesus visibly with them, they had his familiar friendship and companionship. They could trust in him to guide and direct them at all times. They had the visible proof of Jesus! Yet, without his death and resurrection, his visible presence would be pointless. It wouldn’t prove anything if Jesus did not die for sin and rise victorious over death. And even if we did go that theoretical route where Jesus would just do non-stop world tours after his death and resurrection, we – his Church – would be at a loss. We would be completely timid and useless while Jesus was not in our vicinity. I think that we would be hampered, hemmed in, with thoughts of, “We can’t do any real ministry unless Jesus is with us.” But again, that’s all just theoretical… and see above reasons for why this isn’t actually better. What actually did happen is far better!

Jesus did ascend and did send the promised Advocate – the Holy Spirit. God is still with you, even today! He comes to you, he works in you, and instills such courage that we do go out as Christ’s ambassadors – his officials and co-rulers! Jesus’ death and resurrection renews everything in heaven and on earth and will establish a rule in which the Holy Spirit reigns everywhere through the Gospel and your ministry. The Law has been fulfilled; Judaism is abolished! Pagan idolatry is destroyed! The world is changed! And even though it annoys the devil and the sinful world, the Gospel of Jesus Christ will endure and prevail forever by the work of the Holy Spirit through you!

History records the truthfulness of Jesus’ promise that “it is for your good that I am going away” (Jn 16:7). On the day of Pentecost alone the Holy Spirit added 3,000 to the number of believers. In city after city where the Apostle’s proclaimed the gospel the Holy Spirit added to their number. Throughout tumultuous times, as in the Lutheran Reformation, when the pure Gospel of Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone was threatened, the Holy Spirit prevailed against the Devil – the Prince of the World – and preserved believers through the pure Scriptures. Even today, when it seems that the Prince of this World dealt a crushing blow, closing churches across the world, the Holy Spirit still prevails – opening one up in every Christian home and leading thousands of churches to go online and come up with different ways to get the Good News of salvation out there. You can’t win Satan. Until Christ comes again the Gospel will prevail by the power of the Holy Spirit!

Jesus has ascended and sent what he promised – the Holy Spirit. He pours out this Spirit on all people. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved by the Spirit’s power. This word that John uses to describe the Spirit – “The Advocate” – is really a fitting word. The Greek word he uses is “paraclete”. A paraclete was someone who gave legal assistance in court, perhaps even to the degree of pleading your case for you. And that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit does. You and I get the joy of proclaiming the testimony, of witnessing for the case that Jesus is alive for the salvation of all people. That’s our part. Don’t worry about the rest. Don’t worry about proving your case or convincing the jury. That’s the Holy Spirit’s part. “When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8). He will convince the world about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment. “About sin, because people do not believe in me” (Jn 16:9). The Holy Spirit convinces unbelievers that their unbelief is the one great sin which must be overcome. “About righteousness, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 16:10). The Holy Spirit convinces unbelievers that Christ, by his redemptive work, has gained for all people a perfect righteousness that avails before God so that, like Jesus, we to can stand before God! “And about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned” (Jn 16:11). The Holy Spirit convinces unbelievers that the victorious Christ is the one to be obeyed and worshiped, not the devil who poses as the “Prince of this World,” but is in fact judged and condemned already.

God is with you, every day. He has overcome your own unbelief, convincing you of your own righteousness and Satan’s condemnation. Now he also works through you – with the same convicting and convincing power we saw on the first Pentecost – to add to the number daily of those who believe.

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Look Up! (May 24, 2020) – Ascension

May 24, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Look Up!

Acts 1:1-11

https://youtu.be/DsPcqQGhHi4

 

When I’m jogging, when my legs ache and my chest is on fire, there’s a hill up ahead, I’ll sometimes throw my head back, all the way back. It has a fairly interesting effect. Suddenly houses and cars, fences and mailboxes, and especially the long stretch of road I have yet to run and the approaching hill, all just disappear. All I see is sky. Only blue fills my vision. It’s a metaphor for an approach to life that the Bible consistently calls us toward. Simply put, “Look up!” “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1).

We are in a race, and we will be tired and hurting right up to the moment the tape is broken. So often this world and the mess we’re in here – where we are always sinning and always dying – are all we see. What if we could learn to throw our heads back, spiritually speaking, to let heaven fill our vision, to have thoughts of glory be the deepest-worn paths in our minds, to long for the waiting joy, to focus outright on eternity? What if we fully embrace the reality of heaven and reveled in the inevitability of you and me being there through Christ? What if we let this become our resilience and our unforced smiles? Could we live for heaven to such a degree that we could rise above the disappointment here? Go even further. Could we live as if we are nobodies on earth – as if we’re not even here at all but are somehow already there? We have already been “seated with [Christ] in the heavenly realms” (Eph 2:6).

Is this the key to an effective life even now? Or does our upward gaze only make us rather useless here and look like fools besides? The disciples stood there, looking intently into the sky. Who knows how long they would have gawked there if the angels had not brought them back to reality, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11). It seems like the angles wanted to plant them back on earth, back to reality.

It’s often an accusation against Christians. Our heads are in the clouds. We only want to go to heaven, so we’re not up to doing the practical things that need to be done today. The heavenly minded are of no earthly good. One interesting thing about this objection is that it has no basis in reality. Think about our own country’s history. Just who founded the hospitals? Who established the great universities? Whose ideas were the great charitable institutions that have endured? Where have the arts always flourished? Where did the moral authority come from to end slavery? Where did the civil rights movement get its strength and compass from? Who is almost exclusively trying to save the lives of unborn babies? Who blesses marriage? Who heals the sick, cares for the poor, or repents that he or she is not doing so enough? The answer is people of the Christian faith.

This seems like a contradiction. The heavenly minded, those with their heads in the clouds, have so often been the ones making significant differences for good in this world. This seeming contradiction goes all the way back to the apostles, who said, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is,” (Col 3:1) and with faces aimed at heaven, with eyes looking up, they changed the world.

You can find any number of examples from Scripture of Christians doing this. I think of Stephen, surrounded by men blinded by rage. Their hearts full of violence. Their hands grasping him and searching for the nearest stone. That’s when Stephen looked up. “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). In this moment of evil and violence, what we see in Stephen is what he learned from Jesus. He learned to live in an unearthly way. Not breathing out hateful words as he breathed his last. Rather, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

I’m sure you can find examples of this from your own life too, or people you know. I recently came across an article about a young lady who was tortured by an abortion she had over 20 years ago. Many triggers took her back to that day. Her grief never seemed to end, and it was magnified whenever she encountered things such as baby showers, newborns, and strollers. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the hundreds of days of sadness she experienced were the punishment she deserved. She saw no way out of her guilt and grief. Even her personal relationships were affected by the walls she built around her heart. She was unable to trust anyone. Grief tore at the fabric of her later marriage. She was even unable to shower affection on the son that she later bore. Yet, one encounter that led to many more encounters with a volunteer at a Christian pregnancy center eventually taught her to look up. She slowly peeled away the layers of shame, sadness, and regret. In time she learned to look up and see how much she needed Jesus. And with a heart filled by the Holy Spirit, she began to believe and hold on to God’s promise of forgiveness. Finally, no longer crushed in spirit, she could truly rejoice as a redeemed child of God. She finally had a new outlook on life.

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days. Speaking with them, showing them his hands and feet, inviting them to touch him – “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Lk 24:39). This was no vision, or dream, or figment of their imagination. Jesus even ate with them often. After these 40 days, there could be no doubt that this was the very same Jesus, now risen bodily from the dead for the salvation of all people. After being convinced of this, there could also be no doubt that they too would be resurrected from the dead and see Jesus in their own flesh one day. That they would finally rise above all that’s wrong in the world, all that threatens to destroy, and they would be in paradise. Your God does not leave us dead in sin. He raises you to life through faith in his risen Son.

The disciples watched as Jesus ascended into heaven. It was the last time they would see Jesus in this world, save in their dreams – one lasting impression to sustain them through God knows what, for the rest of their lives. He stood there, death all behind him, love in his eyes, scarred hands lifted up… blessing them. The image is the gospel itself – what we could never have earned or deserved – God standing there with blessing. We are never cursed, never condemned, never given to endure the living God’s face turned away in anger. We are blessed.

Then Jesus said, “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). It was the last words they had from him. And with that he was taken from their sight, lifted from the Mount of Olives, and held for a moment in the expanse until a cloud hid him from sight. He left his disciples standing on this hill with their heads thrown back toward heaven, squinting at the sky, faces filling up with the expanse of blue and white, until angels interrupted, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus… will come back in the same way you have seen him go” (Acts 1:11).

You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). This is last commission Jesus gave to his followers. Our purpose in life and reason for being here. Look up! Be heavenly minded, yes! And do earth some good while you are here.

But, can I do any good? We often fall into the mindset that we can’t be of any earthly good. That we simply do not have any power to what we say – anything persuasive enough to really change the world. That the world is too dark, too sinful, already too far gone for us to really be able to do anything good. If only we had some real power, some real authority in the world.

The disciples sought this power and authority when they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:8). They perhaps thought that the only way they could be witnesses was if Jesus set up an earthly kingdom and earthly glory alongside the promised spiritual reign of Christ. Would he now do what many hoped the Lord’s Anointed would do? – bring back the days of David and Solomon, when the kingdom of Israel was at its greatest. Because certainly witnessing with the power of the Holy Spirit called to mind a very specific picture in the disciples’ minds. There were many examples from the Old Testament when the Spirit of the Lord was leading prophets to speak his Word and perform powerful miracles. Certainly they recalled the Spirit that was with the judges, kings, and prophets, leading them to crush Israel’s enemies. The apostles would have been stirred with these images of warring and prophesying for the Lord as opposing nations fall and kings are turned from wickedness.

All this the apostles certainly would do. They would perform works more miraculous than the feats of Samson, David, and Elijah. Striking down a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey is a small thing compared to the miracle the Spirit works when he turns a person’s heart from sin and self-reliance to grace and trust in Christ. Sending the prophets of Baal running for the hills after calling on the Lord to set an altar ablaze is a small thing compared to the drowning of a sinful nature in baptism, dying with Christ, and rising a new creation. This miracle of faith would not confine itself to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It would spread to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

“You will be my witnesses.” You don’t need the authority of an earthly kingdom backing you because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus]” (Mt 24:18). You are his witnesses. You don’t need the power of sword or bow, nor do you need a prophet’s hands or staff. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). As a witness to the testimony of Christ and by the Spirit’s power, you will overcome the hearts of nations, teaching them also to look up! Look beyond the brokenness of this world to a heavenly home. You will be teaching people not to judge God based on the life experiences in the comparative split-second of time they’ve lived under the enemy’s flag. To withhold the judgment the unbelieving heart wants to make based on the things we see in this world – God’s masterpiece ruined by sin and death. These were never the plan. The beauty that remains is a whiff of another country, a heavenly one, where everything is just as it should be forever. Some things just won’t be right until we’re home. So look up! “Set your hearts on things above” (Col 3:1). And do earth some good with the authority of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Knowing that Christ is the way to a place called heaven is precisely what is required if you are to do any real, lasting good on earth. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Throw your head back. Rise above all of this. Fill your eyes with glory. And at the lunch table where you work, at the funeral of a friend, at the bedside of your little children… you will be his witness.

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I will not leave you as orphans (May 17, 2020)

May 17, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

I will not leave you as orphans

John 14:15-21

Service video: https://youtu.be/eroxq3ZDU8o

 

Why are we still here? It seems like one of those movies that just doesn’t know how to end. I think of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that has to wrap up all the loose ends and seems like it has 7 different endings, one after another. Same with Avengers: Endgame (I watched it again recently), that has to tie up the storyline of every character. And here, in the church year, we’ve had the climax of salvation. We knelt at the cross as Jesus paid the price for all sin and breathed his last. We rejoiced at the empty tomb when he rose victorious from the dead. We’ve reveled in that Easter joy. But by now, on this 6th Sunday in the Easter season it just kinda feels like we are dragging it out… like a story that just won’t end. Yes, there’s a couple big events coming up. Ascension is this coming Thursday – 40 days after Easter. And then Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Jesus foretold in the readings today is after that. And that’s really it. The last big events in salvation history.

Broaden the focus out and see where we are at today in comparison to all of this. That all happened about 2000 years ago. Yes, the New Testament church was established and rapidly grew so that we could have it today, but now it just seems like things are dragging on, right? I mean, we don’t really see that kind of rapid growth anymore – at least not in our country. Christianity has had its heyday in the US and now it just seems like we are trying to hold on to it as an increasingly uncaring nation leaves it behind to gather dust in some old corner. We are losing that grip on a God-centered world – a “theocentric” worldview. Why let it drag on? Why doesn’t God just wrap it up and end the story already? In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a long drawn out ending anymore. Now it feels like the credits are rolling and we are waiting for that very last credit scene, perhaps even starting to wonder if it’s ever going to come. Is he coming back? Is he with us? Is he even real?

This gradual shift away from a worldview that puts God at the center of all things has been a long time coming. A quick overview of philosophy from the past two centuries shows the progression. Although 19th century philosophers acknowledged a religious component to worldview, there was a drift away from religion having any authoritative stance in forming a worldview. Rather religion was beginning to be seen as a result of a worldview. Christianity, therefore, was no longer a guiding direction for how we view the world, but rather an offshoot of people’s experience and history. And since worldview was becoming more and more relative – more and more about the individual – there was an increasing conviction that it was irrational to promote a single worldview.

Enter the 20th century and this progression in the way one views the world is solidified and built upon. Now, the way one perceives the world centers almost exclusively around human beings in general, yet more specifically, around each individual. There was still some acknowledgement of being part of a bigger community, but the individual was still champion of his or her own worldview. More and more, objective reality was giving way to subjective reality. In other words, the general consensus was that humanity was at the center, not God. And each individual had their own version of truth based upon their experiences. Gone are the days of one objective truth.

This shift, however, has left us feeling very alone and insignificant in a vast dark universe. Why else would we be searching for other life in the universe. This shift has also left us without much purpose. Thus the looking back on where we’ve come from and the rise of evolution. It’s even left us with a void that leaves us with a deep need for relationships, to be connected with others, face to face, digitally, and wherever else we can get it. The shift from a God-centered perspective on life to a human-centered perspective has left us with so many holes in our lives and gaps in our worldview. And, interestingly enough, some would turn back and blame God for leaving us alone as orphans. It wasn’t God who left us. It is we who have left him. And that doesn’t work out so well for us.

This doesn’t just apply to unbelievers either. Sadly, this shift in culture and worldview affects even those of us who do try to keep God at the center of our lives. We too, at times, live as if we’ve missed out on the “Golden Age of Christianity” when Jesus visibly walked the earth and taught his disciples face to face. We sometimes fall into the mindset that God has little bearing on what goes on in my daily life, besides merely guiding my morals and decisions. Not consciously. But how many days go by each week without so much as a memorized prayer before meals or before bed? Do we really wake up every day with a mindset that this new day is a gift from God to be used for his glory – to join him in the great commission? Do we eat our meals and spend our money thankful for the gifts God has given us – acknowledging that we would have nothing if it were not from his hand? Are we living with the mindset that this is merely the credit roll and nothing we do really has any significance to it besides keeping the faith?

We are living in the days after Pentecost. We are living in the days of the Holy Spirit! Jesus has not left us as orphans, simply to survive throughout our days. He comes to us and is with us every day! Moreover, he has sent “another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:16-17). This isn’t the credit roll. No! We are still in the heat of all the action! The outpouring of the Holy Spirit and wielding the power that he bears! Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands” (Jn 14:15). This word, “keep,” is not primarily to be thought of as “obey”. He’s not saying, “if you love me just obey the 10 commandments.” This word “keep” is to “watch over,” “protect,” and “guard”. And it’s not without emotion, either. It’s not without motivation. The reason you would watch over in order to protect something is because you love it, because you cherish it, because you find it valuable for your own life and for others. “Protect and keep my commands because they are your most precious and valuable treasure in life!”

These commands, too, we often hear that word and our minds immediately go to the 10 commandments. And although that is true, we do value and guard the 10 commandments, that isn’t the whole picture. The word used here has more a focus on “commissions” rather than “admonitions”. “Love one another” (Jn 13:34). “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them, and teaching them” (Mt 28:19-20). “If you love me, guard and cherish my commissions to live according to the word and preach the word faithfully”. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:16-17).

We aren’t in the credit roll of history, brothers and sisters. No, we are building to the second climax of the story – the culmination of all things! We are guarding and protecting the Good News of salvation through Jesus as the forces of evil try to snuff it out. We have the Advocate, the Counselor, the Spirit of truth on our side who cannot be defeated because the truth is, the battle has already been won by Jesus. Victory is ours. Now we are cherishing and sharing that message of victory with all people, so that they too may be on the side of victory. And during this rising action, as we gather the kingdom, Jesus himself says, “I will not leave you” (Jn 14:18).

You have not missed out on the “Golden Age of Christianity.” You are living in it! Jesus is still present, and we have the full outpouring of the Spirit in a way that the disciples didn’t really have until after witnessing Jesus’ death and resurrection. The disciples had the Spirit. They were believers. But things were still cloudy for the disciples until they received the special outpouring on Pentecost. Jesus said, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn 14:25-26). They recorded all of this, and we have it today! Through this recorded Scripture, the Holy Spirit leads people to Christ, helping them understand and see him clearly.

Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me” (Jn 14:19). “Whoever has my commands and keeps them” – guards them, cherishes them – “is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them” (Jn 14:21). Much of the world no longer sees Jesus actively working in their lives because they no longer guard and cherish his Word. God is no longer at the center, human beings are. We too have to be careful of slipping into this thinking. And we do that by going back to the Word. Digging into it. Valuing and cherishing it.

It’s quite interesting, that throughout history God has focused not on visibly revealing himself, but revealing himself through words. The very first time God revealed himself to the world was with his word, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” (Gen 1:3). The first challenge Satan emitted to Adam and Eve was to challenge the Word of God, “Did God really say…” (Gen 3:1). When the worldview of the people on earth became anthropocentric – human centered – for the first time, building a great tower to make a name for themselves, God confused their language and so scattered them over the face of the earth as a reminder that all things center around him (Gen 11). He sent prophets who spoke the words of God to give direction. Even Jesus, though he “performed many other signs… which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31).

Today, we have his recorded Word. Remarkably persevered throughout the centuries so that you can be confident that what we have recorded today is the same as it was written by those who heard directly from God. We have the Holy Spirit who is with you through the Word and makes his home in you, teaching you all things, revealing Jesus the Savior, and bringing him to you.

Love this Word as you would a letter from a loved one who is no longer near. Cherish it. Protect it. And share it. Because it leads to the only perspective on life – the only worldview – that provides a complete way of seeing the whole world. A worldview without any holes in it. God’s Word provides the answer for why we are here and where we came from. It reveals our ultimate purpose in life – to know him and share him. It provides the connection we all crave – a connection with God himself! It even has answers for the evil and brokenness in the world – viewed through the lens of sin. Our life and purpose – viewed through the lens of grace. And gives the perspective that earth is temporary, heaven is our home! You don’t get all that from any other worldview. You don’t get the complete picture from anywhere else.

I can’t wait for that climactic scene when the skies snap back like a scroll, the trumpet shall sound, and every eye shall see him! Until then, let’s go and gather disciples with the Holy Spirit to help, and Jesus living with us forever!

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Victory on the one true path to life (May 10, 2020)

May 10, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory on the one true path to life

1 Peter 2:4-10

https://youtu.be/O3l34GxYUUA

 

Find one of the infinity stones, and you have immense power! The infinity stones were highly sought after stones, or gems, in the Marvel super hero movies. Each of the 6 infinity stones had different powers. For example, there was the Power Stone which granted immense power. There was the Reality Stone which allowed you to alter reality. The Time Stone allowed you to control time, etc. By themselves, these stones were quite powerful. But when they were all collected and used together, you could do anything you imagined with just the snap of your finger. The main villain throughout wanted to destroy half of all life in the universe. The heroes – spoiler alert… it’s been a year already – the heroes used the stones to bring back that life that was destroyed.

But of course that’s all just a fun fantasy story. I mean, nothing in the universe could do such a thing like that. Or could it? Peter calls Jesus the “living Stone”. And it’s interesting that if you think through all that Jesus has done and can do, you see that he, the “living Stone,” can do all that these fantasy infinity stones can do, and much more! The Bible says about Jesus, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (Jn 1:3). Peter says about Jesus in his 2nd letter, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pt 3:8). “Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Mt 8:27). But I don’t make this comparison to simply geek out about superheroes or show how Jesus is like a cool superhero. I make this comparison to open your eyes to the true power of Jesus. He is like a superhero and much more, except he is real! Proved it by all that he has done and documented by eyewitnesses. He is the one way, the one truth, and the one life (Jn 14:6). There are not many paths to God. Not every religion is truth. There is only one. And that one path intersects with every one of ours. Either you will stumble over it and go your own way, or you will follow it and live because of it.

I know it’s not a very popular idea to talk about exclusivity right now – that there is only one right way and all other ways are wrong. We like inclusivity. We like acceptance. But Jesus says there is only one way. He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).

Unfortunately, many have rejected this one way throughout the centuries. The Jews of Jesus’ time rejected him because of his humility. They wanted a Messiah who would come as a respected king and mighty conqueror. They wanted a Messiah who would change their physical reality from being oppressed by the Roman Empire to becoming their own, powerful and independent nation like during the times of King David.

And what about today? Why do people reject the one way, the one truth, and the one life? This question really has two layers to it. There are those outside the Christian faith who reject Jesus because of his claims of exclusivity. They would ask what makes Christianity different from any other religion? Why should I believe that Christianity is the only way? And we’ve talked about that recently. You can go back to the April 19th service if you missed it. But even within Christianity, sadly, there are many different denominations saying different things. Some say that, in the end, Jesus will reconcile all people to himself – believers and unbelievers. This is called Christian universalism. Others say that it’s all about the works you do in life, either to balance out the bad things you have done (works righteousness) or as a proof that you truly are a believer. And then, throw into the mix of all this the Postmodern concept of tolerance, and we have to accept as valid the beliefs of any other branch of Christianity and you’ve completely stumbled over what Scripture plainly says – what Jesus plainly says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Then, you are no longer letting Jesus be the cornerstone that should set your angles and head your corners. You are fashioning your life, your faith, by your own design.

Each of us needs to take a good, hard look at ourselves too and examine our personal convictions. Are they still in line with what the living Stone says in his word? Or has our faith gone out of plum, out of alignment, even if ever so slightly. Don’t think that you are immune. Even the disciples were not immune to getting out of line from the Cornerstone. Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:4). And Philip, too, thought he had a better design when he said, “Lord, just show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (Jn 14:8). What is it in your own life? What is it that makes you stumble or fall over the one rock of truth that is Jesus? Maybe with all that’s been going on you feel you have to justify God, and make Christianity appealing once again. Maybe you feel ashamed in your supposedly Almighty and loving God during a time when he allows tragedy to strike and people to die. Is your foundation of faith shaking and crumbling under your feet? Do you feel as if you are being put to shame? Then maybe you’ve been building on the wrong foundation. Maybe, somewhere in laying the bricks of your faith you’ve gone off course from the Cornerstone. Because, “the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (1 Pt 2:6). If we are ashamed, then we need to tear down and rebuild all that is not in alignment with God’s Word. When that happens, maybe it’s because we have been the ones building our lives and fashioning our faith in the way that we see best.

Read the text from Peter again and notice that you are not the builder. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Pt 2:5). That’s the very thing about stones, isn’t it? They aren’t alive. They don’t move. They are inanimate. It’s the most lifeless thing you can think of. It’s not like a log on a forest floor that once was alive but now is dead. It’s not like dirt that has the potential of bringing forth life. It’s dead. It’s the deadest thing you can think of. It even resists the tendrils of life that living things send out, forcing roots to go around. And this is what the Bible says you and I were. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1). Resisting the tendrils of life that God sends out because we were “hostile to God; not submitting to God’s law, nor could we do so” (Rm 8:7). You and I were, the deadest thing imaginable. Unable to follow God’s law. Unable to do works of salvation. Unable to prove our true faith by any kind of action. Unable to build ourselves into a spiritual house. We were by nature dead as a rock.

And yet, Jesus takes this idea of a stone and applies it to himself. He once was dead, and then unbelievably rose from the dead to become our “living Stone” – our “Life Stone” if you want to use the infinity stones analogy. Then he takes our cold stony hearts, unable to produce any kind of life in ourselves, or move in any sort of way, and he shows us mercy. And by that mercy he turns us also into living stones and builds us up into a spiritual house.

John the Baptist said Jesus could do this, too – with exactly the same imagery. When the Pharisees and Sadducees crossed paths with the Life Stone, proclaimed by John, they stumbled over it because they were building their spiritual house on a different foundation. They were building their spiritual house upon the presumption that God had chosen them as his people because they were the flesh and blood of Abraham – direct descendants of him. To which John replied, “I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Mt 3:9). And that’s exactly what he did! He took the most spiritually lifeless thing there was, the fallen sinner’s heart, and brought it to life. By his own death and resurrection the living Stone brought you to life and made you a “living stone,” set you upon his foundation, and sees to it that those who trust in him as the only way, truth, and life will never be put to shame.

Now you are, “A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9). I could keep going with the stone analogy. On Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem and the crowds were praising God in loud voices, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:38), the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke the people for saying such high praises. Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Lk 19:40). That’s one of the things I miss most during this time of social distancing: seeing the stones whom God has made alive cry out and declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness.

But, despite many churches being temporarily closed, God has opened one up in every Christian home – sent out the tendrils of life to reach many more stony hearts. And he’s using his “Chosen people, royal priesthood, and holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9) to do it. That’s you! Though Christians differ from one another in race, nationality, gender, and social status, Jesus has made us into one holy nation, chosen by him, and special to him! And he gives you the special privilege of having direct access to the throne of God’s grace. No one and nothing stands between you and God. You are living stones because you have direct access to the Life Stone. And because you have the Life Stone, you also have this power! Jesus says, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing” (Jn 14:12). He’s talking about creating faith – bringing to life that which was dead. We do that by declaring his praises! Jesus does that through us when we share the mercy he has given us.

Six infinity stones for ultimate power… no, I have one better. The one true Living Stone. And because he has brought me and you to life, declaring us royal priests, we too get to use the power of the Living Stone by declaring his praises.

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Victory over Bad Choice (May 3, 2020)

May 3, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory over Bad Choices

John 10:1-10

https://youtu.be/_DfNxYGxEJQ

 

Right now you have a lot of choices as to what you could be doing right now. Today you’ve chosen to carve out some time for worship. You could be sleeping in, or getting a head start on mowing the lawn, or whatever else you have going on today. But you’ve made a choice and decided that it’s important to carve out some time for God’s Word. During these strange times, currently, that means getting on you device, pulling up YouTube or Facebook and… you are greeted with so many choices. There’s the big TV preachers who have long had a media presence. There’s probably many channels from the very large churches in your area. There’s new and emerging channels from smaller churches that are perhaps just getting into the media game. If there’s one good thing about the coronavirus its that almost every church now has an online streaming presence! You could even probably find a livestream from the church you grew up in and pop in for a virtual visit! But with so many choices, how are you going to know which voice to listen to? What are you going to base your decision on?

Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because we always have readings focusing on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. So, I could just say that when you are making a decision, like where to worship, just listen to Jesus and he will guide you. Amen, let’s sing the next hymn. But if you are like me, that doesn’t quite satisfy. I’ve always struggled a bit with the idea of Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a very nice picture, a very comforting illustration. Don’t get me wrong. But to me, it never quite seemed powerful enough. I mean, yes, a shepherd definitely cares a great deal about each one of his sheep. I know that a shepherd, “Gently guides me, knows my needs and well provides me” – that’s all very sweet. But to me it never seemed like… enough. I wanted a wise counselor to guide me in my decisions. I wanted a supreme king to show me the way. I wanted a mighty warrior to fight against the bad choices and dangerous consequences that could potentially harm me. I wanted all of these things! And to me, well, a shepherd just never quite seemed to cut it.

That’s because I was thinking about shepherds all wrong. The best I could picture was a modern-day farmer – and although I greatly respect and appreciate all the hard work and tough decisions that farmers today put into their livelihood, it still doesn’t quite capture the character of the ancient Judean shepherd. But my eyes were opened when I came across this quote: “In such a landscape as Judea, where a day’s pasture is thinly scattered over an unfenced tract of country, covered with delusive paths, frequented by wild beasts, and rolling off into the desert, the shepherd and his character are indispensable. On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their kings; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice” (George Smith).

Jesus chose that name for himself, that type, because he is your tireless guardian. Watching over, concerned about, protecting every one of his sheep. He is the one, guiding his flock, leading them to good pasture, and keeping them from all harm and danger. He lived with us. Ate and drank with us. Died for us and was raised to life for our victory. Jesus is the Good Shepherd – wise, mighty, and on your side. But Jesus also gives the distinct honor and privilege of being so-called “undershepherds” of his flock, to those who serve in divine ministry. The term “pastor” is actually the Latin word for “shepherd”.

But, as I mentioned, there are so many pastors and ministers to choose from – made extremely accessible by our recent circumstances. And, unfortunately, they don’t all say the same thing. So how do you know which shepherd, which pastor, to follow? How do you know which one is a true “under-shepherd”? Jesus tells us in John 10 that you will know a true shepherd from a false one by his words, by his actions, and by his intentions.

Let’s start with the words. Jesus says for the true shepherd, “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… His sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize his a stranger’s voice” (Jn 10:3-6). A true shepherd of God’s sheep will speak the same words of the Good Shepherd. The pastor will always and only be an echo of what God has already spoken in his Word. And God’s Word alone is the authority on what is truth and what is not.

So listen to a shepherd, a pastor, who speaks what God speaks – not claiming to have any sort of special insight or personal revelation. Not speaking God’s Word through a filter of human reason and emotion. But speaking God’s Word plainly to the sheep. This of course then means that you yourselves are familiar with the Good Shepherd’s voice – that you regularly take time to hear the Good Shepherd speak so that you can compare any pastor’s voice to the familiar voice of the Good Shepherd. Those who are not familiar with the Good Shepherd’s voice by reading Scripture will be easily fooled and tricked by pastors who are in fact robbers and thieves dressing up their words as shepherds.

The second test for choosing who to follow is observing the actions of a pastor. “Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (Jn 10:1-2). A true shepherd’s actions match his words. There’s no double speak or hypocritical words. What the pastor preaches, he preaches also to himself. And practices it himself. He comes to you through the gate – which Jesus later says is him. He’s not preaching any other way to be saved except through the gate, Christ. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (Jn 10:9), Jesus says. This predominates any true shepherd’s preaching, and he knows how to apply that message to each one of his sheep because they are always on his mind – each one, individually.

We get an eye-opening contrast between true shepherds and false shepherds in the first reading we had from Acts. Note, the apostles’ care for Christ and his Church leads them to raise up more leaders to serve. These new leaders enter by the gate! “They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them” in blessing (Acts 6:6). And see how Stephen holds to Christ – the only way to be saved – no matter what the consequences! Even facing a gruesome death by stoning. How true were Jesus’ words about the false shepherds: “they come only to kill and destroy” (Jn 10:10) With their words and actions and rocks they testified to whom they belonged – stoning and killing a true shepherd.

This brings me to the last distinction. You will know who to follow by their words, by their actions, and by their intentions. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). What is the pastor’s intention for you. Are they willing to say the difficult things you and I need to hear in order that we may have eternal life? Or would they rather gloss over difficult topics because they’d rather not upset you? They’d rather see you happy now in this life than be concerned by the life that is to come. Do they do the bare minimum, or are they deeply invested in each one of their sheep?

It makes me think of David, who, long before he was the royal shepherd of the kingdom of Israel, shepherded his father’s flock in the wild country. And as he did that, he let no danger stop him from caring for his sheep. No law required a shepherd to fight lion and bear for the sake of the sheep. In fact, David’s actions and Christ’s words here in John 10 are all the more striking because Rabbinic law made it clear that a shepherd was not called upon to expose his own life for the safety of his flock. Yet a good shepherd does just that. The Good Shepherd did just that – giving his life for yours.

That’s why it is so important to make a careful distinction, an informed decision on whom you choose to follow. You have access to so many churches, so many pastors, across the English speaking world right now. Whom are you going to choose to listen to?

The thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy” (Jn 10:10). No, they don’t say it outright. They approach with reassuring words, dressed as a shepherd. Many, don’t even know that their words no longer echo the voice of the Good Shepherd. But make no mistake about it. Follow a false shepherd and you are in great risk of following him to death and eternal destruction.

But “the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls the sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice… Jesus said, ‘I am the gate for the sheep… Whoever enters through me will be saved… I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10).

Listen for the Shepherd’s voice as you choose carefully who you follow. “When you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed with Scripture, leaning upon his Word, and looking out over his scattered sheep – every one of them on his heart – you understand why Christ took the shepherd as the type of his self-sacrifice.

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Victory Over Despair (April 26, 2020)

April 26, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory Over Despair

Luke 24:13-35

https://youtu.be/jvUClqocH0k

 

Do you feel overwhelmed? Easy to understand if you do there’s a lot going on. Schedules have changed. Demands have changed. The demands on our time has changed. The demands on our emotions. The demands on our relationships all changed and it might overwhelm you.

In Exodus 18, Moses was feeling overwhelmed too. As the Israelites settled into their new reality, problems started happening and people went to Moses to fix them. He was a fixer. But more people came to Moses and more people and more people, and more than he expected. Until his father-in-law, Jethro, came and said “Moses, what are you doing? You are wearing yourself out. You can’t do all of this.” And Moses probably knew that. He probably knew that he was trying to do more than he had previously done successfully. So why didn’t he stop? Why didn’t he ask for help?

Maybe for the same reason we are hesitant, too, as new things keep coming into our lives. Because we are worried about what it will say about us. Like what does it mean if you can’t do your job well from home? And also keep and maintain a home? And also be there emotionally for everybody in your home? What does it say about you if you don’t work as well in this location as you did in the previous location? What does it say about you if your emotions are getting more stretched and if you can’t handle everyone else’s up and down emotions as well as you previously did? What does it mean if you can’t help your kid with their schoolwork as well as you should be able to – or teach them? What does it mean if you can’t handle being unemployed, or having less money? What does it say about you?

Same thing that it may have said about Moses. That he had a limit. That we have limits. There’s only so much we can do. And it’s unrealistic of ourselves to think otherwise. Sometimes we are trying to do too much. Sometimes we need outside help. Sometimes we need a different perspective on all that’s going on. A realistic perspective. A perspective that puts everything back into place.

It’s what the disciples were all going through as well. Quite suddenly everything was different. Just days ago they were traveling freely and talking with Jesus, their Lord and teacher. The next moment he’s dead, they are hiding behind locked doors, and nonsensical reports start coming in. Two of them just needed a moment to clear their heads. They got out of Jerusalem and all the chaos that’s been going on. They traveled to their home in Emmaus, not far away, and as they traveled they talked. They talked about their dear friend Jesus. They talked about his arrest and trial. They talked about his sudden death. They talked about his missing body and the nonsensical reports that he was alive again. They talked about everything. And because they felt so strongly about all of it, their talk must have been quite animate – with strong words and big gestures. They asked each other hard, even unanswerable questions as they tried to solve the mystery of what just happened. Trying to fill in the blanks and solve the puzzle. But they failed to find the answer.

A third traveler walking beside them asks what they were discussing – which gives us a nice recap of all that’s going on and the depth of their despair. “What are you discussing together” (Lk 24:17) the third traveler asked. (It was Jesus, but they were kept from recognizing him right away). “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Lk 24:18). Shows you how big this news had gotten already. And also their strong feelings about it. “About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him… And what is more, it is the third day since all of this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us – put us beside ourselves, threw a wrench into all of this. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find the body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb… but they did not see Jesus” (Lk 24:19-24). “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). There are few sadder phrases than that. They had watched. They had waited. Peter went to go investigate. They lingered in Jerusalem for a time, but all this was too much. All this was just leading them to despair. “We had hoped” (Lk 24:21). “They stood still, their faces downcast” (Lk 24:17). Their eyes stared blankly at the ground – their sparkle gone. Their faces sullen, foreheads deeply wrinkled. Heads hung low and shoulders slumped. “We had hoped” (Lk 24:17).

And rather than offering a consoling word, Jesus surprisingly reprimands them! “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). Reprimands them because they had all the answers right in front of them but did not understand. They were looking in the wrong place, believing the wrong things when they had the answers all along – when Jesus told them again and again what was going to happen. “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:26). Cleopas – one of the two traveling disciples – touched on the answer when he said that Jesus was, “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (Lk 24:19), but he failed to understand what Jesus – the mightiest of all prophets, the true redeemer and Savior had to do. So, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).

It’s a reprimand we all need to hear, even in our despair. Not because we are despairing, or overwhelmed. I’m not at all saying that it’s wrong to feel overwhelmed. Quite the opposite. It’s a very normal thing in life. But when you are feeling overwhelmed, when you are despairing, what do you do? Where do you go? If you are despairing and simply going to fumble through your own feelings, if you are overwhelmed and just going to find an escape until things calm down, then you are missing your greatest help. Then you need to hear these words: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). As it did for the disciples on their way to Emmaus – turning sullen, confused, and despairing hearts into “hearts that burned within us” (Lk 24:32) – so turning to God and hearing his word will do for you in times when you are overwhelmed and despairing.

There was one particular year of my schooling that was difficult. I’m not typically one of those “Woe is me, this is terrible” kind of people, so this was actually surprising even to me. But one year was just really a struggle. I was often overwhelmed. I was faced with a number of new and tough decisions. Even struggled to continue down the path of ministry I had chosen, at times. And on those particularly difficult days when I just wanted to throw up my hands and leave town – get away from it all – there’s one phrase I would repeat that helped put everything into perspective. “One thing’s needful.” There’s only one thing that’s important in life. “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rm 4:25). Believing this, I’ve already gained everything I need in life!

The apostle builds on that simple truth and draws application for our lives today in the reading from 1 Peter we read earlier: “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt 1:18-21).

Your faith and hope are in God. How much heartache and paralyzing confusion this would have saved the disciples! How much heartache and confusion this would save us if in every moment of despair, every time we feel overwhelmed, we would turn to God and his Word to carry us through. When despairing under the weight of guilt, turn to the cross where your sins have all been paid for. When overwhelmed by all that’s going on so that you feel you don’t even know which way is up, focus on Christ raised from the dead and first center yourself in him – in your own resurrection on the Last Day through him. When your plans and future hopes are in shambles, understand that the most important thing your future holds cannot be shaken because your faith and hope are in God.

Anchoring yourself in Christ and centering yourself in his Word, then we can begin piecing together and making sense of everything else with a proper perspective in place. Feeling overwhelmed because your children’s school is now your home? So am I. But what a great opportunity to add prayer and Scripture back into the curriculum if it wasn’t already. Patience running thin at times because you don’t have your usual time to escape or decompress? A humbling opportunity for self-assessment and strengthening your character with godliness and grace – practicing forgiveness as we also ask for forgiveness. Despairing over what the future holds in all this uncertainty? Contrast that with the certainty of forgiveness, renewed life, and salvation you have through Christ!

The answer to our despair and feeling overwhelmed is not more – not being more busy to catch up. Often it’s less. Less busyness and more Jesus. “Stay with us” (Lk 24:29), was the plea of the Emmaus disciples. “Stay with us a little longer.”

There’s a hymn that reads like a prayer echoing this plea of “Stay with us, Lord.” And although it’s more of an evening prayer, I think it’s fitting any time of day, so I’ll close with that:

 

Stay with us, Lord, and share the weight Of sorrow, guilt, or pain
That robs our weary hearts of rest-Christ, make us whole again.

Stay with us, Lord, and be the light That shines when day departs,
Whose rays can pierce the starless night And reach the darkest heart.

Stay with us, Lord, till morning comes And, through the silent hours,
Renew in us the strength we need To serve with all our pow’rs. Amen

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Victory Over Skepticism (April 19, 2020)

April 19, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory Over Skepticism

Acts 10:34-43

https://youtu.be/CNzVu0DO1aY

 

Why Christianity and not any other religion? How do you know that the Bible is true? Why not the Koran of Islam? Why not the Vedas of Hinduism? Or some other religion’s sacred text? Afterall, don’t all religions tout their own as the one and only?

That’s what we are going to address today as we talk about skepticism. So if you’ve been skeptical of Christianity, this message is for you. And if you are a Christian, but know some skeptical people, this message is for you.

In the marketplace of spiritual ideas there are a lot of infomercials. This religion claims to be the one and only way, yet so does this one. This preacher claims he can cure diseases, that one can give you “your best life now”. This denomination stresses moral integrity, that one social justice. So who are we supposed to believe? All religions make assertions, but how do we know which one, if any, is true?

You can’t just assert things and expect people to believe them to be true. We are far too jaded to accept the assertions of just anyone. We sooo want to believe that eggs won’t ever stick on this new kind of skillet. Yet we learn from our mistakes and become less and less naïve as we grow older. That’s a good thing. Sometimes we can investigate claims by trial and error, but you can’t really do that with religion, can you? As we grow a little wiser, we research the products we buy – what are the reviews of this new skillet? What is it made out of? But what religion is not going to have glowing reviews from its adherents and bad reviews from its enemies? We aren’t buying kitchenware afterall. We are trying to find a way of life, a way of thinking, a path to truth. We need something more than just yelp reviews.

Not all is lost, though. We can test the claims of a religion. We can test the claims of Christianity – not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error. But by careful investigation of its claims. Is Jesus who he says he is? This was certainly a question that the disciples grappled with. You don’t think the disciples were skeptical of Christ? We just read about Thomas forever known as “Doubting.” Peter and the rest could not wrap their heads around the death and resurrection of Christ. They heard but did not always confidently believe. We are not alone in our skepticism. But God provided ample evidence – verifiable evidence – “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

And it all centers around the resurrection of Jesus. So is there good reason to at least believe that the resurrection of Christ is possible? I think so. Especially if we are willing to treat the evidence of the resurrection as we would any historical claim from the same era. Christianity is firmly rooted in history – citing places, people, rulers, and events – it’s easy to investigate the evidence both in the Bible and outside of the Bible. And it would be easy to disprove if it were not true.

So let’s take a look at the evidence, starting with the crucifixion. Did it happen? Well, we have eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. And the descriptions fit the time and place. Yeah, but did Jesus really die when he was crucified? Or was he just unconscious? Well, the Romans knew how to crucify someone to death. They were good at it. And the Roman soldiers there surely knew when a person was dead or just unconscious. They even pierced Jesus through the heart to make sure he was really dead. There’s no good reason to believe that they did not kill Jesus. Especially considering the punishment Roman soldiers faced for not carrying out their duties. And, there’s no good reason to doubt the multiple eyewitness accounts of the crucifixion.

But that’s the easy part. What about Jesus’ resurrection? There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection too! In fact, from the readings today it’s quite clear that God knew we would be skeptical, so he provided an abundance of evidence, and an abundance of witnesses. “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem” Peter said. “They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen” (Acts 10:39-40). And not just by one person. Not even just by the handful of eyewitnesses who recorded their testimony for us. He appeared to Peter and the Twelve – including Thomas. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred other people – most of whom were still living when the apostles were recording their testimony (and could have discredited the sources we have today – if it were not true), and last of all he appeared to the apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:3-8).

And there is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses lied about what they experienced. Yes, it defies the laws of nature learned by human experience – I’ll get to that in a moment. But what did they gain by it? The eyewitnesses didn’t gain anything from Jesus’ resurrection (unless you consider a martyr’s death something to be gained). They didn’t gain money, or power, or prestige. They were even willing to die for this truth, which makes them very credible eyewitnesses. And there is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses were all mentally insane. How could so many people all in one time and place suddenly become insane? And even if that were the case, how credible is it that so many mentally insane people got their stories to match? It just doesn’t make sense.

So, no reason to be skeptical of the resurrection unless, of course, if someone faked it. But only three groups had access to the body of Christ: the Romans, the Jewish enemies of Christ, and the disciples of Christ. The Romans would not fake the resurrection. They were the ones who crucified him. The Jewish enemies of Christ were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. They were even paranoid about a theft of the body and demanded that a guard unit be placed at the tomb. And despite the paranoia of the Jewish leaders, there is no good reason to believe that the disciples of Christ would fake his resurrection. Most of them were too scared to leave closed doors. And most of them displayed their own skepticism to Jesus’ claims of death and resurrection. The only thing to be gained would be punishment and persecution.

We could go on into greater detail, and I hope you continue to investigate these claims if you are still skeptical. But you see, there is no good reason to doubt the death and resurrection of Jesus. And if Jesus really rose from the dead, then that proves his claim that he was true God. It also explains all the miracles he performed and his power and authority over the laws of nature that we observe. If he is God, then we would expect him to be able to do supernatural things – like rise from the dead. And this is the very point I want to get to. Jesus proved he is true God by rising from the dead.

So we aren’t stuck with the circular argument of “How do you know the Bible is true?” “Because it’s God’s Word.” “How do you know that it is God’s Word?” “Because the Bible tells me so.” It’s much more than that. “How do you know the Bible is true?” Because Jesus said it is true – without error. “Why should I believe Jesus?” Because he is God. “How do you know that he is God?” Because he rose from the dead. “Why should I believe he rose from the dead?” Because all the evidence says he did. The tomb was empty. There was no body. No body could be found – not even by very powerful, very connected, and very motivated people. And since all the evidence says he rose, and his resurrection proves that he is indeed divine, then we ought to believe what he says to us in the Bible.

Peter says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). And his judgement is simple. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). Your relationship with Jesus is the sole determining factor in this judgment. Not who you are. Not what you’ve done. Only whether or not you believe that Jesus is the Savior. Doubting and denying who Jesus is means condemnation. And that’s a pretty serious thing to simply sit on the fence and find out about when you die. Don’t just sit there and remain agnostic. Look into the evidence for yourself. Read the Bible and investigate it’s claims your eternity DOES depend upon it. “Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27).

See the great lengths Jesus went to so that there would be no reason for doubts. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27). “These words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn 20:31). “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify… all the prophets testify about him” (Acts 10:42-43) listen to the eyewitnesses, test the claims and weigh the evidence. Stop doubting and believe! Because “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). “By believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Stop doubting and believe so that you may have peace.

Jesus appeared to his disciples in order to prove his resurrection. And notice how he often did it. He ate! It’s so simple. He ate with the two Emmaus disciples (Lk 24:13-35), he ate with the Twelve who were hiding behind locked doors (Lk 24:36-43), and he ate breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21). Peter’s point is that these witnesses did not just imagine Jesus. They saw him, touched him, observed him consume real food. The food was there, he ate, and now it isn’t. We ourselves at the breakfast he prepared! And they listened to him: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Think about it.

Now, you might say, “That’s nice, but I wasn’t there.” True enough. You weren’t there when Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address either, but you believe it happened. Why? Because there are credible eyewitness accounts. You have no reason not to believe it. In fact, if you denied it, you would be thought of as a weird conspiracy theorist. Granted, the resurrection of Christ happened way before the Civil War. And it is more than a presidential speech; it is a supernatural event. Yet, we have eyewitness accounts and documents to back up the resurrection claim. We have more textual evidence of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection than any other event of that era. And the other events aren’t even close. We have more historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than any Roman emperor winning any war or legislating any law. And what’s maybe most surprising is that all the evidence agrees – it all says the same thing with no conflicting details.

God wants you to know about it. God wants all people to know about it. So Christ sent the Spirit to inspire these eyewitnesses and historical investigators like St. Luke to write about it. These documents have been carefully vetted and preserved for you. In one case, Christ even took his own enemy, Saul, kicking and screaming into the faith. He literally knocked Saul down on the road to Damascus and confronted him. He baptized Saul, known to us as Paul, and converted him to Christianity. All this testimony was recorded and spread to Jews and Gentiles across the Mediterranean world, and finally to us centuries later through these Scriptures. And the message is this: Christ died for sinners like you and me, and he rose from the dead victorious over death for us.

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His Resurrection is YOUR Victory (April 12, 2020)

April 12, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Easter Worship – April 12, 2020
His Resurrection is YOUR victory!

1 Corinthians 15:51-57

https://youtu.be/E7CZyE_B4Z0

 

“What a glorious morning! It’s Easter! It’s the ray of sunshine – even if the sun isn’t actually shining – we’ve been looking forward to for such a long time. 6 weeks of Lent can feel like a long time, especially with the sheltering in place and limited time to get out and enjoy many of the things we love. But now, we get a little respite from all that – a little relief. There’s joyous music! Excited greetings of “Christ is risen!” And singing “Alleluia!” What a glorious morning!

It would seem strange to introduce something sad, something scary, something somber into a morning like this, wouldn’t it? Especially when just for a moment we would like to escape from all that’s been going on. But, my friends, that is precisely what we are going to do. Not because we want to be sad or scared. But because we need to understand and appreciate just how sad and scary this “something” is if we are truly going to appreciate what we are celebrating here this morning. Only then will we be filled with the level of joy Easter affords us.

What is this “something” that is so sad and scary? It is the end—the end of breathing, the end of a beating heart, the end of living. It is death. And we all, young and old alike, are facing it. We don’t much like to think about it. It is too sad. It is too scary. But there it is, waiting for us, somewhere in our future.

So, what are we going to do about it? We can, and should, do all we can to take care of our bodies, to keep them as healthy and whole as possible. By doing so we may delay death. We MAY delay death. But there is no guarantee. There are innumerable ways our lives might end other than poor health. And, even if we avoid these other death dealers, eventually our bodies will wear out and the end will come. No, taking care of our bodies is not enough. It will not allow us to avoid the inevitable.

So, what do we do? What can we do? We can listen to the amazing, remarkable, glorious promise God gives us in the verses of the Bible we read earlier from 1 Corinthians 15. “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed… For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52). His promise is that because Jesus was victorious over death, he promises to give his followers victory over death. “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57).

What is it that makes the thought of death so scary? In our text, St. Paul mentions the ‘sting’ of death. What makes death sting? What makes it so scary? If death were merely the end of our existence, if we simply stopped BEING at the moment of death, it might be sad because we would no longer be with our loved ones, it might be disappointing because we would like to live longer, but there would be nothing scary about it. Just maybe an immense finality to it.

The reason death is so scary is that we know that when we die, we will face our Creator. We know there is someone to whom we will give an account. And, our conscience tells us that we have not lived up to his expectations. If we read what he says in the Bible, we will only be more scared because it will show us that we are even further from living up to his expectations than we thought. If it weren’t for sin, death would have no sting at all. What makes the sting of death so potent is God’s law that declares eternal death and torment for every infraction, no matter how minor.

But this is precisely what makes Easter so exciting! Easter changes this! Listen to what St. Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:56-57). Jesus was victorious over sin when he died on the cross. He took all the punishment our sins could dish out. “And now,” Jesus says, “You don’t need to be afraid to die because when you face your Creator, he will welcome you with open arms. Through me your sins are forgiven. There is nothing to be afraid of.” This is why St. Paul wrote, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). Death no longer has any sting! There is no reason to be afraid.

It’s like this. Think of death as a jellyfish. The Australian box jellyfish is considered the most venomous creature in the ocean. It gets its name from the cube-like shape of its bell. As many as 60 tentacles grow from the bell and can reach 10 feet in length. Each tentacle has about 5,000 stinging cells. It moves illusively through the water and its venom contains toxins that attack the heart, nervous system, and skin cells. It is so overpoweringly painful, human victims have been known to go into shock and drown or die of heart failure before even reaching shore. You do NOT want to bump into a box jellyfish.

 Unless, of course, someone had removed every stinger from its tentacles. Without stingers, there would be nothing to fear from a box jellyfish. It would become as dangerous as the stuffed octopus on your child’s bed. There would be no reason to fear this formerly frightening creature.

The same is true of death. “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15:56), and Jesus has removed every single sin. Because of what Jesus has done for us, death has no sting. It is merely another event along the way to the perfect world God says he will one day create for his followers. When we die, our bodies will be placed in the ground while our souls go to be with God. And then, on the day this world ends, listen to what will happen: “the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Cor 15:52, 54).

Did you catch that? Our weak, mortal bodies will be raised back to life. But this time, we will be immortal. “Imperishable”, “immortal,” “incorruptible” – our words can’t even capture the entire thought in one word. We will never again die. In fact, the Bible says that we will never again be weak or injured or sick. Our glorified bodies cannot perish, no matter what force is brought against it. Cannot die from any disease or age, and cannot rot with gangrene or the grave. Our eternal bodies will be indestructible! We will live in a perfect, glorious, sinless and sick-less new world.

And I’ll add one more incredible detail to all of this. God puts all his promises in writing so that we may have a legal document to fully assure us of our salvation. God has promised it. And God has kept every one of his promises so far. Like any legal document, thought, it’s only as good as the power behind it. So what’s the power behind the document of the Bible? Christ’s resurrection is the power behind his Word – his promises. His proven resurrection is the power behind this promise that says every believer in Jesus is free from sin’s curse and guaranteed eternal life. God documented it. Signed it in his blood. And delivered on it with his own resurrection guaranteeing that no one can take his gift of victory over your own death away from you.

What is the best possible victory that I could have shared with you this morning? A political victory? An athletic victory? A victory over a disease? All would be wonderful. All might make us smile and celebrate. But none of these would last. None of these would matter to us in the end. But the victory God has told us about, the victory Jesus won for us when he walked out of that tomb, the victory he will give us one day when he raises us from the dead to eternal life – that victory will last forever and ever.

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Shadows of the Cross: the Passover Lamb (April 9, 2020)

April 9, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Shadows of the Cross: the Passover Lamb

Exodus 12:1-14

https://youtu.be/QZyqWlXl3xw

 

We were gathered around the dinner table in a dimly lit room discussing the strange events that had taken place recently. There was separation between us and them, and increasingly so. Tonight, we weren’t even allowed to leave the house. When we asked why, father said something about a plague – a plague that brought death. The room seemed tense. A bit uneasy. Nothing like this had ever happened before. We sat quietly, yet anxious as we ate our food. Our bags were packed. Our sandals were on our feet. Father had his staff. They said we were leaving tonight. After the busyness of the day, there was a quiet stillness as we all sat around the table, secluded to our own house.

There was a lot leading up to tonight. Over the past few days we had been quickly packing our belongings – only what we could travel with. Dad went out and chose a year-old lamb – set it apart from the rest. It was a beautiful lamb – pure and spotless. The best in our flock. We helped take care of it for four days. Even got a little attached to it. When dad said we had to slaughter him tonight, we were all a bit sad. I even cried a bit. Now we are gathered together, each family in their own home. Waiting… watching… listening. The lamb’s blood painted on our doorframes. How do we know when it’s time? When will this be over? “We will know,” Father said. We will know.

 

It was that same Passover meal that Jesus now celebrated with his disciples. There they were, gathered around the table – Jesus with his disciples. They ate the lamb roasted over the fire, and the bitter herbs. There was the unleavened bread – reminders of when the Israelites ate in haste – watching, waiting, for this last plague to pass over them. The plague of death.

Yet this one was different. It was not only the last of its kind. It was also the first of its kind. This one was very different because every Passover lamb that had been sacrificed from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus led up to this moment. Every one of those Passover lambs pointed ahead to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and his sacrifice, his blood, to deliver his people from a plague.

Perhaps the world didn’t realize it, but one nation knew. One nation knew that they had been watching and waiting for a Messiah to come so that the plague of death would pass over. Not the death of a firstborn – as in the time of Moses in Egypt. But this death they were waiting to be delivered from was the death that sin brought. Physical death for all people and spiritual death in hell because all sinned. The Passover lamb and many other sacrifices at the Temple were all reminders that we have sinned, and sin brings about death.

So every year, every household in Israel would take a year old lamb – a lamb still in its prime – without blemish or defect. They would set it apart for a few days and then slaughter it at twilight. For centuries this lamb giving its life both reminded the Israelites of God’s powerful deliverance from Egypt, and pointed ahead to the Lamb of God who would deliver all people from sin and the death that it brought. And at this Passover, knowing what would happen that evening and the next day, Jesus instituted something new. He took some of the same elements of that Passover meal, bread and wine, and instituted a new meal that would both remind us of the sacrifice and blood shed by the Lamb of God, and connect each one of us personally to the payment that was made so that the plague of death would Passover each one of us as well. Connect each one of us to Jesus’ body and blood.

 

I think this all became much more vivid for us this year. As each one of us has been gathered in our own homes, with only our family. As each one of us is waiting for this new plague, the coronavirus, to pass over. It kind of takes us back to that moment – at least a little bit. Watching… waiting… wondering when this will all be done and how we will know.

It also puts into perspective how Jesus made sure there was no doubt, no questioning of how we would know our plague of sin has passed over. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has given his life, shed his own blood, for your deliverance. He declared from the cross, in no uncertain terms, “It is finished”. The plague of sin and death has passed over because of your sacrificial lamb – Jesus Christ. He reminds you of that proclamation and connects you to himself – the price for your deliverance – when he communes with you in the Holy Supper he established. “Take and eat; this is my body…. Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:26-28). Here I am for you, with you, in you, by the power of the gospel with my true body and true blood. Now surely you will not doubt it that in days of joy and sorrow, in life and in death, I am closer to you than any human being could ever be. I know all that you are, all that you have done and will do, all of your good works and all of your sins, and I do not despise you; no, I want to be with you and live in you forever and ever!

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