Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Sink or Float (Nov. 29, 2020)

November 30, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Sink or Float

Genesis 6:1-22

watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/7304jBBibwA

 

When I first arrived at Seminary, there’s a Friday that is devoted to getting to know the other classes – building up the Seminary family. To do this, the upperclassmen would set up at stations around town, and the Juniors (that’s the incoming class – they weren’t Freshmen, they were Juniors) they would travel between stations and spend some time with the different groups of students. So, for example, one station was a trivia station at the Seminary. Another was hitting a few balls at the driving range. And then there was a station out at the lighthouse, on Lake Michigan, where we would play a game called “sink or float.” In this game, you had to guess whether various objects would sink or float. Everyone makes their guess, and then they would throw the item in the water (with a string attached) to see if it would sink or float. It started off easy with something like a rubber ducky. Float. Then there was a rock. Sink. But then they started to get tricky. A gallon milk jug about a third filled with gravel. And toward the end, they began trying to deceive. A rubber ball – like the kind you find in those big towers at the store. But I could tell by the way they picked it up and were handling it that there was something different. It seemed to be weighted on the inside, like it was filled with sand.

My point is, looks can be deceiving. You can’t just judge by outward appearances. You have to know the details, know what’s going on inside, know the heart. That’s what the Lord saw when he looked at humanity at the time of Noah. “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). Were not even that far into history, just chapter 6, yet already God saw the devastating trajectory that humanity was on. “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” (Gen 6:6). This was not what God created. His creation was perfect in every way. But when sin entered the world, everything changed.

It wasn’t all of a sudden. There was a gradual progression to it, and actually a specific reason is even given for the downward trajectory. Yes, the root of it all is sin, and sin corrupts in many ways. But here, in this reading, we are given a specific way that sin corrupts. “The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose” (Gen 6:2). A quick side note: there is an error that is taught that just doesn’t hold true. Some would say that this is talking about angelic beings (the sons of God) marrying and bearing children by human women (daughters of man). Nowhere else does Scripture use these phrases like this. It does, however, talk about believers as children of God. This is simply talking about believing men marrying unbelieving women. When contemplating marriage, the most important of human relationships, the believers pushed their faith and their godly heritage into the background. When looking for a prospective wife, they didn’t ask: “Will this woman help to make my home a place that upholds God’s Word and passes it on?” Rather, they only asked the question most important to them: “Is she good looking?” As this went on, those who held to their faith became fewer and fewer, until finally Noah and his family were the only ones left.

Finally, God announce a change of course. “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal” (they are “sinful flesh” is the idea there), “Their days will be a hundred and twenty years” (Gen 6:3). “I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything will perish” (Gen 6:17). His purpose remained constant. Thank God, that cannot change! He wanted, and still wants, all people to be saved. But he knew that if he did not intervene, his own believing children – The Holy Christian Church on earth – would be swept away by the rampant evil everywhere on earth. So, to preserve his Church and his Promise of salvation with it, he had to destroy everything that threatened to snuff it out – lest all hope and all believers be lost. God says something very similar about the days leading up to the Last Day. “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Mt 24:22). Apparently, it’s going to get so bad before the end that even the remnant of God’s Church on earth will be in danger of being swept away by hearts that do not acknowledge God.

Even in his judgment, however, God remains patient and loving. He gives humanity a specific grace period – their time of grace, their time to repent and trust in God. Their days will be 120 years. As corruption grew, and their time of grace went on, Noah preached the saving Word. He had a vivid illustration, an object lesson right there – the ark he was building. I’m sure people began to wonder. I’m sure they asked questions. “Ahhh… Noah, what are you doing there? Why the big barge?” And besides the large ark as a testament to God’s judgment, Noah also preached the Word (2 Pt 2:5). But the Spirit cannot continue to rebuke and correct people if they reject his gracious work. As God saw it, his human creatures had become nothing but sinful flesh. Totally under the control of sin. Such a sad story. The God who had once looked at his highest creatures and said: “Very good!” (Gen 1:31), now looked at them and said, in dismay and disgust, “That isn’t the human race I created. Their heart is only evil all the time. I must destroy them and start over.”

God’s judgment of sin has not changed. God does not change. Your sin and my sin too God looks upon in disgust and disappointment. Our rebellion against God. Our mixed up and selfish priorities when finding a spouse. Our lack of effort and missed moments when raising up the next generation. A day is coming when God will destroy it all. Not with water this time, but with fire. Even so, God displayed his patient love and mercy. In the days of Noah, he gave the human race 120 years to listen to his word, turn from their ways, and live. He does the same for you and me, only we don’t know how much time we have – no one does. So “Be on guard! Be alert!” (Mk 13:33). Be in the Word, stand upon his promises, and pass them down to the next generation. For “you do not know when that time will come” (Mk 13:33).

God’s action could be seen by some as heartless and vindictive. Surely there is another way? Certainly he didn’t have to destroy all life on earth. The reality is, however, his action was not heartless or vindictive. Actually, it’s the very opposite. He took drastic action because he did not want his plan for gathering his family of believers to be frustrated. God not only delivered Noah and his family from the waters of the flood, but actually used them to continue the line of Adam and Seth. It was from that slender thread of just one family that God’s promise of the woman’s Offspring hung. If the unbelieving world – those who have already condemned themselves – were allowed to live alongside Noah and his family, how quickly would that promise of the Savior be snuffed out? And then truly all hope would be lost when Noah and his family eventually died, and God’s promise of salvation with them.

It is important to note that the condition described in verse 5 is still the condition of every person from birth. “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. It teaches the total depravity of my own heart and your own heart. If God had not intervened to save, you and I also would sink like a rock in the flood of God’s judgment. The only remedy today is the same one Noah found at the time of the flood: the grace of God. That amazing love which reaches out to rescue sinners who deserve to be rejected by God. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8). It wasn’t his exemplary actions or pure motivations by which he found favor, however. It was that he “walked faithfully with God” (Gen 6:9). He held on to God’s promises. Trusted in them for his salvation and righteousness. Found God’s Word so important and so valuable that he passed on the promises of God to his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.

In [the ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also… It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Pt 3:20-22). Did you know that’s why baptismal fonts typically have 8 sides? It’s a reminder of the flood, when God saved his people using water. In the same way, in the flood of Baptism, God saves his people through water. God saved you through that water. He saved your children through that water. And he can save many more through that water. In Baptism, your sins are nailed to the cross and you die with Christ. “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rm 6:3-4). Your sinful flesh, the sinful flesh that God was grieved by and destroyed in the flood, was also destroyed in the flood of baptism so that you too may live a new life. And, while it’s true that we still struggle against the sinful flesh even now, once Christ, your promised Savior, comes again on the Last Day you who walk faithfully with God will be preserved, and all that is evil will be destroyed for good. Your sinful nature included.

In the days of Noah, God sent a flood of water to wash away the wickedness of sinful hearts, before the wickedness of sinful hearts washed away the last righteous people (by faith) – and thus the Promise of the Savior altogether – the means of grace. What if that happened today? What if the means of grace were wiped out by the growing evil and unbelief? What if we had no communion next week or ever? What if we had no baptisms? What if we did not even have this Word of God, and the Savior was no longer made known? No means of Grace. No way of knowing our Savior. No means of salvation. Our existence would ultimately be meaningless. That’s what it is to some. That’s what it could become for us if we do not hold to these teachings and guard his promises. If we do not pass them down to our children. It’s a hostile world we live in. And our connection to God – the means of grace – could all be lost in just one generation if we don’t treat them as they are – our ark, that lifts us out of the wickedness of this world and spares us from the judgment of God.

There’s one final application from all of this that I’d like to make. We talked a little bit about marriage earlier. We talked about having the right priorities when finding a spouse. Asking, is she faithful to the true God is much more important than “Is she or he attractive?” Noah also offers us a little parenting advice as well. I know parenting can be difficult. It can be difficult raising children and instilling values that are different from what they perhaps hear at school or among friends. And Noah’s job of parenting – training his children in the way of the Lord – was infinitely tougher than any other parent has ever faced. He and his wife stood absolutely alone in a world which had turned against God. Even so, by his patient instruction and faithful example. Noah responded to God’s commands with glad obedience. His life matched his faith. And Noah, along with his god-fearing wife, “trained up his children in the way they should go…” so that when they were grown they did not turn from it (Prov 22:6). They too stepped upon the ark and were saved by the same water that Noah was saved by. When God came in judgment, his promise, his love caused Noah and his family to float. When Jesus comes again, after the time of grace he has given each one of you and your children, you too will “float” in the judgment by upholding that same promise of the Savior.

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His Love Endures Forever (Nov. 25, 2020)

November 30, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

His Love Endures Forever
(Thanksgiving Eve Worship)

Psalm 136

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/p6jCO8O9Uwc

My hope today, by the time we are finished with this service, is to explode your dinner table tomorrow!

Here’s what I mean. You maybe know that a cartridge of ammunition – a bullet – has a casing that is filled with gunpowder. But you don’t directly ignite the gunpowder. You actually hit a little primer – small in comparison to the whole thing. But that primer is the start of a chain reaction that results in an explosion. The same thing holds true on a large bomb or nuclear weapon. It’s not the impact with the ground that causes everything in the bomb to go. It’s actually a little “primer” that starts the explosion.

We have today, in this Psalm, the “primer” that you are probably very familiar with. Many of you use it in your homes multiple times a day. It’s the refrain of this Psalm: “for his mercy endures forever.” Today we are going to take a detailed look at this Psalm so that tomorrow at your dinner table, as your are giving thanks to God for all that he has given you, when you say that phrase, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever” (Ps 136:1), this whole Psalm will explode in your mind and flood your heart with all the goodness and love of God.

 

The structure of the Psalm itself is quite special. It uses something called “inclusio”. Which means, what is stated at the beginning is summarized in the end. It wraps up the Psalm into a nice and neat package. So, the opening verses of praise are echoed in the last verse. Then the role of the Lord in nature – verses 5-9 – are recaptured in verse 25. And finally, the role of the Lord in delivering – verses 10-22 – are emphasized again in verse 24. So the whole Psalm looks like a series of bookends. Or like a nesting doll.

It’s also probably no coincidence that the refrain is repeated 26 times. You could do a deep dive into the numerology of the Old Testament writings. It’s something that they did intentionally. Not to decode secret messages, but there are many symbolic things that show up in the numbers. It also, helped in memorization during a time when books or scrolls were not widely dispersed to common people. So if you were reciting this Psalm, you could remember, “Ok, there’s 26 phrases… I’m at 25, what’s the last one?”. The importance of 26, though, is that if you add up the name for the LORD “Yahweh” (every Hebrew letter was assigned a numerical value), you get 26.

 

Alright, let’s dive in. It starts off with the first three verses. They remind us of the Lord’s superiority over all imaginary gods. And the phrases “God of gods” and “Lord of lords” do not imply the existence of other gods. Rather, they proclaim the overwhelming greatness of the Lord. They form the superlative – there is nothing greater!

 

The next verses, verses 4-9 tell of the first important demonstration of God’s goodness. The story of creation is the story of God’s love. He made everything in the universe for the good of his people! Yes, the whole human race rebelled against him, but the Lord continues to provide sun and rain, food and life for both the good AND the evil. “He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). Although God gives daily bread even to the ungrateful, HIS people gladly acknowledge that the preservation of the earth and its blessings is a continued display of God’s love. Because of his love for all creation, you can be confident that if the Lord watches over every sparrow, he will continue to provide for his people.

 

Finally, as far as the content, we get to verses 10-22 which tell of the second important demonstration of God’s goodness. His redeeming goodness. The Lord redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt but the power he displayed in the plagues. He led them safely through the wilderness and gave them victory over kings. Only a couple kings are mentioned, Sihon and Og. But the defeat of these kings always held a special place in Israel’s historical memory because it was the beginning of the conquest of the Promised Land. It was Israel’s Lexington and Concord. Their Bunker Hill. The Lord gave them victory over the kings and peoples of Canaan. When the Lord finished his victory, Israel was secure in the land which had been promised to Abraham.

And although it does not mention deliverance through Christ Jesus – obviously, Jesus was not even born yet – the whole account of deliverance from Egypt by God and entering the Promised Land foreshadows deliverance from our slavery to sin and entering the promised rest of heaven. The writer to the Hebrews says in chapter 4, “If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his” (Heb 4:8-10) after creation.

 

The conclusion of the psalm restates the Lord’s redeeming and creating love in general terms. He “remembered us in our low estate” (Ps 136:23). When we were slaves to sin, when we listened to and followed the ways of Satan – ignoring the way of God – when we were subjects of death, he redeemed us from these enemies, defeating them on the cross and at the empty tomb. There was no way we could do it on our own. No way we could throw off our oppressors, journey safely through the wilderness of a sinful world, rise again from death and enter into eternal rest if it were not from God. “He has freed us from our enemies” (Ps 136:24). On top of that, he daily and richly provides all we need for our body and life.

 

This whole Psalm is summarized by the repeated refrain – perhaps sung antiphonally (responsively) by a choir. The refrain itself hinges upon one word – my favorite Hebrew word: Hesed. It can mean simply “love” or “mercy”. But it’s not the general word for love. A more complete translation of this word would be something like “faithful love” or “steadfast love”. It is practically and emotionally equivalent to the word grace in the New Testament. This whole Psalm summarizes the Lord’s covenant faithfulness to his people and his people respond with praise! Although this Psalm does not contain the word hallelujah, Jewish tradition calls it the Great Hallel – or, the great song of praise.

But understand this one point, and I’ll underscore it. God’s love and mercy are not a result of his covenant obligation. His covenant obligation is a result of his love and mercy. What I mean is, it’s his heart, his nature, that drives his faithfulness to the covenant, not the covenant that drives his faithfulness to love us. God is love. He embodies it, is the perfect example of it, cannot do anything other than love. And you are the object of his love! About ¾ of the occurrences of hesed in the whole Old Testament have God as the subject and man as the object. God loves you with a faithfulness that cannot be shaken. And because he wanted you to know that love, because he wanted you to be confident of it, he declared it in a covenant – not to obligate himself to follow it, but to clearly convey that his love will not fail you. So, unlike you and I who might feel compelled to do something only because we’ve signed a contract, God signed a contract with you (his covenant) because it is a natural result of his hesed – his faithful love. Because he is love, he upholds his covenant in all he does.

And, Ci, the word that begins the refrain “His love endures forever” (Ps 136) could be causal: “because his love” or “for his love”. But it can also be emphatic. “Indeed!” We like that right! It reminds us of Easter when we say, “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed”. It reminds us of his Covenant of salvation fulfilled and kept with the proof of an empty tomb. So, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. Indeed! His love endures forever!” (Ps 136:1). This Psalm, which begins with the creation of the vast reaches of the universe, ends at the dinner table of a Christian family as they receive their daily bread. It echoes in your homes at every meal. For all this we sing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Amen”

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Rescue from the Rubble (Nov. 22, 2020)

November 30, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Rescue from the Rubble

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/7sI1Ib6Rmjk

 

Have you heard of a little girl named Elif Perincek? Elif is a 3-year-old girl who endured what no one should have to endure. She was all alone, trapped in a tiny space barely big enough for her body. She was injured and weak, trapped under a heap of rubble for 65 hours. That’s almost 3 whole days. The apartment building she was living in collapsed when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck on Friday, October 30th. More that 5,700 personnel were mobilized for the rescue effort at a number of sites in Turkey. The firefighter who pulled Elif from the rubble told news reporters, “I thought she might be in the space between her bed and her dresser. I went in that direction and that’s where I found her lying on her back. I picked her up. I cleaned her face, got rid of the dust. She held my finger and wouldn’t let go until we got to the ambulance.” There’s a picture of her being carried to the ambulance, and in that picture you can see her tiny little hand clinging tightly to his thumb.

What a vivid example of what Christ promises to do for his lost people. “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (Ez 34:16). “I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ez 34:12). These are the words of God through his prophet Ezekiel promising to rescue his scattered and broken people.

Ezekiel too, witnessed his home being destroyed. He prophesied destruction and judgment before it happened. God called him to speak out against the wickedness and unfaithfulness of those who were supposed to be shepherds of God’s people. Instead, they neglected their duty – the kings and spiritual rulers of God’s people. Instead, they led the people on different paths – paths of idolatry, paths of immorality, paths leading away from God. Ezekiel spoke out against this! He warned the people of God’s judgment and destruction. But the people would not listen. And so, cities were sieged. Buildings began to fall. In 586 BC, Jerusalem itself was burned, and the temple was destroyed. It was a day of clouds and darkness. A day of destruction. A day when God’s people were scattered and taken into captivity. Ezekiel was one of these taken to Babylon, along with Daniel and many other inhabitants of Judah.

However, living in captivity, the tone of Ezekiel’s prophecy changed dramatically. No longer did he prophesy destruction and judgment. Rather, he prophesied comfort and restoration. He prophesied rescue by the hand of one individual. “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them” (Ez 34:11). Don’t miss the emphasis on “I myself”. Unlike those who were supposed to shepherd God’s people but neglected their duty, God now emphasizes that he takes this role upon himself. “I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out… I will bring them into… I will tend them… I will cause them to lie down… I will search for them… I will bind up the injured… I will shepherd the flock” (Ez 34:11-16). Throughout Ezekiel’s prophesy, it is clear where their deliverance comes from. Not earthly kings and rulers, but Christ the Shepherd King! Christ, who’s reign transcends borders and barriers. Christ, who is not influenced by politics or regimes. Christ, who always knows and always does what is best for his people.

Just as little Elif was trapped under a heap of rubble, injured, hopeless, and dying, needing the help of a rescuer, so we too are in a hopeless situation. The destruction that sin does to a person is not a small thing. Sin doesn’t just leave us with a little blemish on the surface that can be wiped away. It’s not just a small scratch that hurts but will heal on its own. It’s not at all a small matter. You and I are in a very hopeless situation because of our sinfulness. Scripture says, “You were alienated from God and were enemies in your thinking as expressed through your evil deeds” (Col 1:21). Separated from God because of your sinfulness and my sinfulness. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1). “The sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rm 8:7). And it’s not even that we started on the right path but walked off when we “trans-gressed.” No, we weren’t even born on the path. We were born in Adam’s image, not God’s. We were born sinful. As wayward sheep. Alienated from God, hopelessly lost, merely living out our short existence trapped in a prison of sin and death until we die eternally.

But that is not what your Shepherd King wanted for you. “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered” (Ez 34:12).

The fulfillment of that promise came centuries later. Well, the immediate fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy came about 70 years after the destruction of the temple when God moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia, to issue a decree that the Israelites may return to their homeland. But the greater fulfillment, the true fulfillment of God’s prophesy through Ezekiel took place when another temple was destroyed. When asked to prove his authority, Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn 2:19). But the temple he was speaking of was not the temple that Herod built. The temple he was speaking of was his body.

So, here we are, on Christ the King Sunday with a Gospel reading that just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest until you realize this. Jesus proved his authority as King of kings and Lord of lords by laying down his life for his scattered sheep – trapped under the burden of sin and death – and by rising from the dead. “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’… After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him” (Mt 27:28-31).

Petty little men in a tiny little fortress bully the One who created light from darkness and divided land from sea. He deserved the finest crown, but look what man gave! He deserved the noblest scepter, but look what man handed him! He deserved the sincerest devotion, but look what man offered! He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. “We all, like sheep, have gone stray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).

He could have swept them all away. He could have condemned us – giving us what we rightfully deserved. We deserved nothing from him. But look what he gave! He gave his holiness for your sin, and his death for your life! “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:24-26).

Christ was not defeated on the cross. No, he was bringing about his most kingly act of love. He was destroying the enemy of death that held every descendant of Adam. He was digging through the rubble and destruction that sin causes to rescue you. “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays,” he says, “I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (Ez 34:16). Knowing what Christ your King has done for you, when you were crushed by sin and entombed in death, as he carries you through life in his strong but loving arms, we can’t help but cling tightly to his little finger.

When little Elif was rescued from the rubble, it was a heart moving moment. In a phone video showing the dramatic moment of her rescue, dozens of onlookers are heard cheering excitedly as she is freed from the wreckage. “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). We don’t often think about what’s going on in the spiritual realm. But there are angels – messengers of God – actively going about the work of God: protecting you, watching over you, rejoicing with you. How many angels are right here with us in this sanctuary right now? How many angels will ride with you in your car on the way home? How many angels sit there with you as your conversation with a friend moves to more eternal matters, and through his Word the Holy Spirit convicts their heart so that it suddenly turns in repentance to Christ our Savior? If only we could audibly hear their rejoicing!

May we also see this work for what it is. We aren’t just meeting new people, we are searching for the lost. We aren’t having a conversation or debate, we are digging through the rubble and destruction that sin leaves. We aren’t just bringing someone new to church, God is raising them out of the pit, and bearing them on his shoulders into his eternal kingdom. Rejoice over this! Amen.

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What happens when I die? (Nov 15, 2020)

November 17, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

What happens when I die?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

watch livestream: https://youtu.be/iSp0S7VssQI

 

The unknowns in life are what often make us worried, apprehensive, or anxious. Take, for example, the unknown of when COVID will end and we can get back to normal life. I heard on the radio the other day the comment that if we only knew, if we only had a date, something like: On January 1st COVID will be eradicated and we can get back to normal life – then we would have something to look forward to, something to get us through, something to look forward to. A hope that will carry us through the next couple months. But, since that is still an unknown, depression is up. Anxiety is up. The stresses of work and ever changing school schedules are compounded. There’s no certainty to look forward to and therefore we trudge on into the darkness with no end in sight.

Probably one of the biggest unknowns that everyone will one day face is, “What happens when I die?” It’s not like there’s a plethora of people who have experienced it and lived to tell their tale. There’s no internet reviews of it or YouTubers filming their experience in it so that you can “try it out” and experience it through their lens. For a great number of people, death remains the one great unknown. What happens when I die?

It seems that the Apostle Paul hadn’t had the opportunity to speak about this during his short stay in Thessalonica. He most definitely focused on Jesus who was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rm 4:25). Read some of Paul’s letters and you will get fired up for Christ’s return when he will gather all believers to himself and take them to heaven. But after Paul had left Thessalonica and gone on to other mission fields, a question started to arise among the Thessalonians. As time went on, some of their brothers and sisters in the faith had died. But Jesus had not returned yet. What will happen to them? Have they missed out? Are they lost forever? Is there any hope of seeing them again?! They were ignorant of what happens when a person dies.

Many today will tell you that ignorance in certain matters is a non-issue. Ignorance is innocence. If I am “agnostic,” that is “not-knowing” if there is a god – “ignorant” of any god – then I’m innocent on the Last Day if a god does appear and judge. Afterall, how could I have known for certain? Likewise, since it seems impossible to know for sure what happens when I die, then it’s a non-issue. I can’t be sure of anything after death, and my ignorance leaves me innocent in the matter. But does it really? Is ignorance really innocence?

No, not at all. In fact, even now – before any kind of eternity – ignorance concerning death is very harmful. Because what are you left with when a loved one dies and you know nothing of what happens to them in death? Does it make you feel better? Does it leave you feeling indifferent? Not at all! There is a gravity to death that weighs you down. There is a fear of death. There is a raging against death lest it takes you or your loved one into its eternal clutches.

And what can you do then? What can you do when someone you have built a relationship with, someone you’ve devoted time to, someone you’ve spent a lifetime growing closer to is suddenly torn from you… forever? There’s only one thing you can do when death remains an unknown. You grieve. You “grieve like the rest (the remaining, the left behind), who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13). And the only comfort you can offer is completely hollow. Completely empty. “Against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another. Fare thee well.” That was one such condolence offered to one who was ignorant of what happens in death.

That’s this side of things. There’s also the eternal side of things – the eternal ramifications. In this, your vain hope is that there is no existence after death. The best you can hope for is annihilation, which Scripture tells us is wishful thinking. Scripture says the real gravity of death is not death itself, but what comes after and what is truly eternal. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). That’s God. Even more heartbreaking than an empty “celebration of life” for one who has passed into the great unknown of death is knowing what comes after and knowing that there is no reversing of the fate.

Like the 5 virgins in Jesus’ parable who met Jesus, the bridegroom, unprepared. Jesus will return. All will see him. And when they do, there will no longer be any time to prepare. There will be no innocent ignorance in death. Though you lived right alongside believers. Though your behavior may have been top tier and your works of service abundant, the difference is clear when the Lord returns. The difference is clear when this life ends. Those unprepared because of their ignorance of death may cry out, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” (Mt 25:11). But he will reply, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you” (Mt 25:12). And your ignorance will be revealed for what it is. Not innocence, but embarrassment and eternal doom. The doors of heaven to be shut forever. Death is forever.

We do not want you to be ignorant about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thes 4:13-14). In Jesus’ own words regarding Jairus’ daughter who had died, “She is not dead but asleep” (Lk 8:52). There’s a big difference for you when you are not ignorant of “What happens when I die.” Death is forever, but Sleep is temporary.

And Paul immediately grounds his claims in something that is known. “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thes 4:14). You know this to be true! You’ve heard the eyewitness accounts. I, Paul, have seen him with my own eyes! After Jesus died, he rose from the dead, never to die again. So what seems like the great unknown, is actually known! We are not ignorant. You do not have to remain ignorant. “We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thes 4:14). Paul starts with something the Thessalonians know. Something that you and I know. That Jesus died and rose again – demonstrating his complete power over death. Then he adds the second point that goes hand in hand: Jesus promised that his resurrection means that we too will rise. “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn 14:19).

Paul is challenging the Thessalonians to see the ramifications of their faith. See the eternal ramifications of your own faith! God has proclaimed something about Jesus, that he is indeed alive. Death has no power over him. And in this, God proclaims something about you too. Death cannot hold you from the living God. He will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. In two short verses, Paul puts to rest all of the fears and concerns that people have about death. He reveals what was previously unknown so that you do not have to remain ignorant.

What a comfort we can find in these words as Scripture turns death on its head! Sleep is something you know! Death is unknown. Sleep is something we often long for, death is dreaded. Sleep offers soothing rest, death brings unspoken fears. A person wakes from sleep. There is no apparent end to death. So central is the thought of sleeping in the Christian’s concept of death that it is a word used throughout Scripture in reference to believers who have died.

And this is not a euphemism that Jesus or the Apostle Paul are using. This is what death really is for the believer. It is a sleep in which a person is completely unaware of anything around him, but from which he awakes to use all his abilities and senses again. Therefore, we aren’t afraid, because just like sleep we know that we will get up again. These words counteract the devastating effects of grief and sorrow. This means an eternity you can look forward to with joy. And, a life you can journey through with unfailing hope.

Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thes 4:18). Talk about these facts so that you can encourage one another! And not just to fellow believers. But to unbelievers as well! Do you wonder what you might say to someone who has lost a loved one? Let’s not just say, “I’m so sorry.” Tell them about what you know to be true. Tell them about why you know it to be true by pointing to the one who has experienced death and lived to tell his tale. “Brother, sister, I don’t want you to be ignorant. I don’t want your grief to be endless. Let me tell you about what happened when Jesus died. Let me tell you about why Jesus died and rose. Let me tell you about the sleep of death that is no longer permanent, because Jesus rose triumphant.

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He Controls the Day (Nov 8, 2020)

November 8, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

He Controls the Day

Matthew 25:31-46

watch our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6LvjSVIKQE

 

During the course of the Vietnam War, AC-130 gunships – those are cargo hauler aircraft outfitted with large cannons – offered air support for troops on the ground, interrupted supply chains, and performed search and rescue missions. They were able to provide either surgical firepower or area saturation for extended periods of time, day or night, and even in adverse weather. Their role in the war and outstanding capabilities caused them to be viewed very differently by each side. On the one side, the drone of those engines meant fire and destruction were about to rain down upon them. But on the other side, things were very different. One airman describes a rescue mission where they flew above stranded soldiers until dawn, when helicopters could arrive. He said, “As long as they could hear us, we were their comfort blanket.”

Likewise, on the last day, when the Son of Man comes in glory to separate the sheep from the goats, there will be no indifferent feelings. Either you will be sent away to eternal punishment, or lovingly gathered to eternal life. There’s no in between, no grey area, no switching to the other side. And when he returns, it will not be your decision. He controls the day.

Today we are going to talk about what Judgment Day will be like from both sides. And we are going to do that by taking a look at the four actions of Jesus on that day. He appears. He separates. He judges. He takes home… or, sends away. And notice, the things that happen on that day will be the same for everyone – believer and unbeliever. But how they are perceived, and how they affect each side is a night and day difference.

So there you are, on any day like today. In fact, it could be today. And you will hear the sound of a trumpet – loud and clear. Not faint. No mistake about it. This is something unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Suddenly, the Son of Man, the Ancient of Days, bright and stunning, will appear for all the world to see. He takes his seat on his glorious throne, accompanied by an army of angels. And finally your mind starts to catch up with what your eyes are seeing and ears are hearing. This is none other than God himself. The God whom I have rejected, kept at arms-length, refused to believe in and refused to rely upon. Afterall, it makes no sense that I should be subject to anyone but myself. But now I see him in glory and power, and I realize this is not like the stories I’ve heard before. How he came humbly in a stable in Bethlehem. How he came meekly on a donkey into Jerusalem. How he came in weakness to a hill with a cross and died. No, this is different. It’s him, but now he comes in power and authority. I see his throne ablaze with fire. I see the river of fire flowing, coming out from before him. He appeared suddenly, out of nowhere, like a thief in the night. I was not expecting him. But now I’m expecting the fire of judgment to rain down upon me.

Before I could say a word of anything – a word of remorse, a word of repentance, a word of argument – he separated us… everyone. We had no say in it. With all authority he separated us like livestock. The sheep from the goats. He put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. No one could say “I should be on the right” or “I should be on the left.” There was no time, no questioning, no interview. And yet, as I stood there on the left with the goats, I knew his judgment was true. Two things are most definitely clear. First, he is in control. Second, he rightly knows where each person belongs already. Today he just makes it public for all the world to see.

Now he begins to speak. Everyone on this side is silenced by their own terror – quaking as we stood motionless. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:34, 40). He wasn’t speaking to us. He was speaking to the sheep on his right.

Now he’s looking at us. His blazing eyes pierce right through me. He knows! He knows it all – my innermost thoughts, my sinful secrets, my selfish pride. All are laid bare before him. There is nothing he does not know. Nothing I can keep hidden from him. Not my actions, not my thoughts, not even my motives. His voice thunders, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me” (Mt 25:41-43).

When? “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison?” (Mt 25:44). We all cried out our case before him. All gave our excuses. “When did we see you… and not help you?” (Mt 25:44). But deep down, we knew he was right. As I look around, I see no tears of remorse, contrition, repentance or sorrow. Just spite. No plea for mercy or forgiveness on any of our lips. Only bitterness and argument over the perfect judgment of a righteous king. In fact, you can see that even in our arrogant excuses we still have little time for his Word. Where the sheep repeated his judgment verbatim, we on this side barely want his words in our minds or on our tongues – shortening his judgment as we spit it back at him. Still not believing that apart from him we can do nothing, we feebly try to defend ourselves, “If we had known you wanted us to do this, we would have done it!”

But it’s too late. His judgment has been made. He appeared. He separated us from all that is good. He pronounced his judgment and presented our actions as evidence of our hearts devoid of love for him. Finally, we depart, into the eternal fire which was never meant for us – the crown of his creation whom he himself came to redeem. Yet away we go. Away from God. Away from his love. Away into eternal punishment. A final confirmation of what we have been trying to accomplish all our lives. To live apart from God.

Brothers and sisters, this is a reality for a great number of people. This is a reality that cannot be undone or reversed once realized. Nothing you do or say on that day can reverse his judgment. He controls the day. That’s terrifying for those on his left. For those whose hearts are prone to do evil. Who reject the will of God in their lives. But to those who realize this evil and confess it, as we did at the beginning of this service. Those who seek his mercy, this day means a peaceful joy. It is a joyous day for you who believe his message of salvation, who trust in Jesus your Savior. That day, with all the same events, will be very different for you. So let’s replay that day but put you where you belong, on the other side of things.

Here you are, on any day like today. In fact, it could be today. And you will hear the sound of a trumpet – loud and clear. Not faint. You aren’t going to miss it. Suddenly, the Son of Man, your Good Shepherd, all glorious with all his angels will appear for all the world to see. He will take his seat on his glorious throne and finally your mind starts to catch up with what your eyes are seeing and ears are hearing. This is your Lord and Savior! You are not afraid, you are not surprised or caught unprepared like a thief, because you are children of the day who have been given faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. You remember how he came humbly in a stable in Bethlehem. How he came peacefully on a donkey into Jerusalem. How he came in grace to a hill with a cross and died for you. And he still comes to you in Word and Sacrament to connect you to him and strengthen you on toward the day of his appearing. Now is that day! Now is the day when the faith he planted in you is revealed by fire which refines it like gold, free from impurities.

Your hope is realized and your salvation is seen! Your heart swells within you and you rejoice as he separates you, the sheep from the goats. With all authority he lovingly gathers you like little lambs tenderly in his arms. No questions are asked. No works are required. Finally separated from all that is wrong with the world. Finally delivered from all evil. You are grateful for two things as he separates. First, he is in control. Second, he rightly knows where each person belongs already. Finally, he makes public for all the world to see your connection to him.

He looks at you lovingly with tenderness in his eyes and says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt 25:34-36).

Was he speaking to us? He’s looking at us, but when? “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (Mt 25:37-39). You certainly didn’t do these things to earn God’s favor. You certainly didn’t do these things for salvation or any kind of recognition. You and I consider ourselves unworthy of any kind of praise – we were merely doing our duty. Nevertheless, Jesus puts his great seal of truth and authority on you, the righteous, and all your good works by replying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

We are amazed to see that not a single sin is mentioned against any who stand on Jesus’ right. We certainly could come up with a long list on our own, but Jesus has justified you – declared you not guilty. His redemption is so perfect and complete that no sin counts against you. Only your good works are mentioned. Works done, not to earn salvation, but as evidence of the lively faith you have in Christ as your only way to heaven.

It’s finally the time to take your inheritance, the kingdom of heaven prepared for you since the creation of the world! Unlike hell, this place is prepared for you! The day is finally here! His judgment has been made. He appeared. He separated you from all that is evil. He pronounced his judgment and presented your actions as evidence of hearts filled with the love of God. Finally, you will be gathered to him and enter eternal life. Enter salvation. Enter paradise. A final confirmation of what he has accomplished in you throughout your life.

How will you perceive the last day? What do your actions in life reveal about your faith? Will the sound of that trumpet surprise you and fill you with terror like those on the opposing side of the AC-130s? Or will the sound of that trumpet flood you with feelings of relief and hope finally made real? Amen.

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The Work is NOT Finished (November 1, 2020)

November 6, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

The Work is NOT Finished (Reformation Sunday)

Matthew 10:16-23

watch our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8uhCVKL4o8

 

Today we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation. Though, it’s important to be specific about what we are celebrating. We are not primarily celebrating the man, Martin Luther, but the work he did. We celebrate the work of standing faithfully upon God’s Word despite rejection and persecution. We celebrate the work of faithfully proclaiming the truth of God’s Word to all people. And, brothers and sisters, let me tell you the work is not finished. Nor did it start with Martin Luther. Throughout the history of the Church, the story of faithfulness to the Word of God has always been the story of persecution. We see it back in the account of Daniel who was persecuted for something as simple as praying in his own home. For Daniel, his bold confession and faithful witness was made with bent knees and folded hands. We see it in the apostle Paul who was imprisoned for proclaiming the resurrection of Christ Jesus. His bold witness was made in never remaining silent but always being prepared to give a reason for the hope that he had even while in chains with no hope of release. The work still is not finished, even to this day. Your witness may not be in nailing up theses for debate or speaking in chains before world leaders. But remember, Daniel boldly witnessed simply by praying. And Paul did not fail to sing hymns in prison or speak with the guards. What does your bold witness look like?

The Gospel reading for today is Jesus’ words to his disciples before sending them out on their first missionary tour. As he gives them a survey of what to expect, note how frankly the Lord speaks with them. He doesn’t deceive his own with false promises. They are informed in advance of the very real prospects they are about to face. Jesus said, “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Mt 10:16). This is ludicrous! If news of a wolf invading a flock deserves strong warning, the thought of someone actually sending sheep among wolves would be totally unthinkable. Think about what Jesus is saying. Would you send sheep out into the open fields where you know wolves roam – where you can visibly see packs of wolves pacing, salivating, set on edge and ready to strike? Of course not! That’s foolishness. The sheep wouldn’t stand a chance. They would be looking back at their shepherd thinking, “Ummm…. Are you sure about this?”

And there are two points to ponder that make matters worse. First, you won’t always know who the wolves are. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing infiltrating the flock sometimes knowingly – seeking to destroy – sometimes unbeknownst to themselves – holding to heresies they don’t even realize. Second, there are wolves within. As you stand guard against the ravenous wolves, do not forget about the pack that prowls within your own heart. Don’t forget the enmity that the sinful nature has for the gospel. That Old Adam that still reviles the truth of God’s Word. If not keenly aware, if not kept in check, the wolves within could also lead you on a path of destruction. Especially when this sinful heart joins forces with the external pack, stalking in the attack.

Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). By itself, this innocence could sound as if it were “simple-minded” gullibility. Likewise, being shrewd, on its own is not necessarily a good quality. But together, they form a balance. The idea is a sanctified common sense. A keen awareness of what Scripture says, and the innocent purity of not letting it be mixed with any other teaching. But even the shrewdest and most innocent among us cannot stand alone. Daniel was not rescued by his own innocence, but by the angel that God sent (Dan 6:22). Likewise, Paul does not give credit for his first defense to the shrewdness of his arguments, but that the Lord stood at his side and gave him strength (2 Tim 4:16-17). So also, there is no need for panic among you or the disciples as they were sent out among wolves because of the “I” who stands behind this. “I am sending you out” (Mt 10:16). Jesus is the one commissioning them. The disciples could go out with full assurance and dismiss all fears. While it’s true, they are sent out among the wolves, they are not in the power of the wolves. It is your Good Shepherd who stands at the ready to protect and defend you from every evil attack. Whether the wolves prowl from within or out.

It is really most amazing how the Good Shepherd has kept so many of his flock physically safe in the very midst of ravenous wolves. How he allowed Daniel to face the very real danger – not of wolves, but of lions – and protected him through the night so that a king of a heathen nation would issue a decree that “in every part of [his] kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel” (Dan 6:26). How he stood at Paul’s side and strengthened him on trial, even when all others abandoned him. And how he used Paul, even in prison, as a witness to the guards, judges, and kings that Jesus Christ is risen. How he ordered events during the Lutheran reformation – keeping Emperor Charles busy with the war against the Turks, so that he would not have time to stomp down a monk who was discovering anew the true message of the Gospel and making it available to all.

While it’s true that God certainly can rescue us from physical and emotional harm. And while he certainly does rescue us on some occasions and prevent it completely in other situations, do not forget what the ultimate deliverance is. Eventually the headsman’s sword took Paul’s life; but it did not stop Jesus from rescuing him and taking him to his heavenly kingdom. “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22) eternally from every evil attack. Brought safely into his heavenly kingdom. This is the finish line for every witness.

So witness without worry. Yes, you may be put on trial – by governments, by courts, or even simply by friends. And at such times it’s easy to take it all personally. This is an attack on me. An attack on my faith. They don’t like what I have to say. But remember who sends you out. Jesus said to his disciples, “I am sending you out” (Mt 10:16). “On my account you will be brought before [them]” (Mt 10:18). “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Mt 10:22). It’s not you they hate. It’s not your name they are attacking. It’s Christ. Because sinful man cannot stand the accusation that God’s law makes. Nor can it fathom the deep love of free forgiveness that are yours through Christ.

So, “When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20). For most Christians, persecution doesn’t come from public writings like Luther. You most likely won’t be arrested for your foreign mission trips like Paul. But you will be persecuted for private acts like Daniel. We live our faith and are persecuted because of it. We don’t face a den of lions, but persecution abounds when we are faithful to the Word. We lose relationships because of moral purity. We lose promotions because of worship priorities. We lose friendships because we won’t join in sinful talking or walking. Faithfulness to God’s Word in the face of persecution requires trust in God and an eye on eternity.

When Daniel could have raged in anger against the king he faithfully served for throwing him into a den of lions, I’m shocked at what comes out of Daniels mouth that next morning. Not, “You fool! You’re messing with the wrong guy and the wrong God!” But rather, “May the king live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions” (Dan 6:21-22). God shut the lions’ mouths to answer the king’s question: Is your God able to rescue you? Yes, he is. God shut the lions’ mouths to show his Church of all the ages that God is able to guard and keep his own. You can trust him and be faithful to his Word in the face of any persecution.

So, “do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20). And although that was spoken in a very special way to the disciples, who would be inspired by the Spirit to write the Scriptures, the Spirit still speaks through you! You have the Word of God in your possession. You have it in print, on a screen wherever you go, and even locked in your heads and in your hearts. The Spirit still guides you to the Scriptures you have learned. So witness without worry. It is not you they are attacking, it is your Lord and Savior. Therefore, it is also not you who have to convince them with your defense, but the Spirit of God convinces or convicts. Consider Paul’s confidence that God will rescue him from every evil attack—the point is not a rescue from danger, but rather a rescue through danger to the heavenly kingdom. Paul knew that even if he died for Christ, God would rescue him from that evil attack and bring him to heaven. Eventually the headsman’s sword took Paul’s life; but it did not stop Jesus from rescuing him and taking him to his heavenly kingdom.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the work is not finished. The work of your salvation is finished, yes. But the work of sharing that salvation and guarding the Word will not be finished until Christ returns for all the world to see – to take you to his heavenly home. So watch out for wolves. They are all over. They surround you and try to entrap you. And although you are sent out among the wolves, you are not under their power – because of the great “I AM” who sends you. Therefore, you can witness without worry. Fill up every day on Scripture so that when asked to give the reason for the hope that you have whether talking with a friend or standing trial for your faith, you will always be prepared to let the Spirit speak. Finally, remember that the Lord will rescue you from every evil attack – which ultimately means one day bringing you safely into his heavenly kingdom where you can rest from all your labors.

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Sin makes a mess (October 25, 2020)

November 6, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Sin makes a mess

2 Chronicles 30:1-5, 10-22

watch our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grId82NyhNQ

 

On Monday of this week, I was dropping off my daughter at school before heading down to Round Rock for a Pastors’ Conference. The first day of Conference always begins with a full worship service and the Sacrament of Holy Communion, so it’s typical to dress up a little more. I had on a jacket and tie. As we were driving, my daughter pipes up, “Daddy, your suit is sparkly!” Sure enough. I was glinting in the glowing sunrise. I had forgotten that I wore this same jacket a couple weeks ago at my brother’s wedding. And at that wedding, I had carried my daughter in her sparkly dress. Fast forward about an hour and there I am, sitting in the parking lot at Pastors’ Conference, trying to get the glitter off before going in the doors. I can’t be going into a Pastors’ Conference wearing a shimmering sport coat! A daddy daughter dance, sure, but a Pastors’ Conference… I need to look professional. I have to get this glitter off. After a number of minutes and a number of methods tried, eventually I walked through the doors with remnants of another part of my life still clinging to me. Thankfully, glitter is a non-issue when it comes to God.

But there’s another kind of “glitter” – if you want to think of it in that way – that makes even more of a mess. And if you thought real glitter was hard to clean up… Well, this is far worse. It clings and sticks and covers everything you get your hands on. I’m talking about sin. Sin makes a mess.

Today we are focusing on an Old Testament reading from 2 Chronicles. It covers the time when kings reigned over Israel and the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah. If you know anything about this time period, you probably know that it was messy. Yes, there were some good, godly kings sprinkled in there. But many of the kings turned away from God in sin and wickedness. Ahaz was one of those wicked kings. Just to give you an idea: He made idols for worshiping the Baals. He sacrificed his own sons in fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. He offered sacrifices on all the altars to idols – in the high places, on the hilltops, and under every spreading tree (2 Chr 28:1-4). He even took some of the furnishings from the temple of the Lord and used them as bribes to the king of Assyria, and eventually removed all the furnishings from the temple of the Lord.

That was Ahaz. Hezekiah followed his reign. And thanks be to God, Hezekiah was a godly king. He opened the temple of the Lord once again and repaired the damages. He brought the priests and Levites back. They consecrated themselves and the temple once again. It took them over two weeks to consecrate the temple, it’s furnishings, utensils, and all its articles according to God’s commands. “So the service of the temple of the LORD was reestablished. Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people, because it was done so quickly” (2 Chr 29:35-36).

And now, picking up in the reading for today, Hezekiah wanted to celebrate the Passover to the LORD – the biggest festival of the Israelites. But, sin makes a mess. Even though worship of the true God had been reestablished, and the temple of the LORD had been consecrated, sin still left its mark. Like glitter clinging to a jacket.

We see the messiness of sin in three different aspects of this event that was to taking place. 1) the timing, 2) the people, and 3) the feast.

It says, “The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem” (2 Chr 30:2-3). This is a good thing, that they were celebrating the Passover once again. But because of the messiness of sin, they were delayed in making preparations and couldn’t celebrate the Passover at the regular time. Already we start to see the tension between a strict adherence to the Law of Moses and an obedience according to the spirit of love. This will resurface again 2 more times in this account.

We should not assume that the literal requirements of the law were unimportant. God’s instructions for the Passover are very clear and very detailed. However, we also recognize that there are times when a strict, black and white literalism could stand in the way of God’s clear intent overall. King Hezekiah and his counselors wanted to unite the people under the true God. He wanted to celebrate a real Passover, with great numbers of people flocking from all over Israel to the one place where God had placed his name. But, when sin makes a mess, what are you to do?

The second time we see this tension, is when the celebration began. It says, “They slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the second month. The priests and the Levites were ashamed and consecrated themselves and brought burnt offerings to the temple of the LORD. Then they took up their regular positions as prescribed in the Law of Moses” (2 Chr 30:15-16). What’s going on here? It looks like the Levites were put to shame and encouraged to greater zeal by the enthusiasm of the people. I think this is talking about the Levites who were perhaps living in the outlying areas of Judah – who hadn’t been a part of the earlier cleansing of the Temple like the closer, Jerusalem Levites. But their services were all the more urgently required on the day of Passover, because “many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves” (2 Chr 30:17), and therefore would be unfit to slaughter the Passover lamb as the head of the household was expected to do. So, basically, the crowds came to the Passover, but required the Priests’ and Levites’ assistance in sacrificing their Passover lambs because they didn’t come prepared – perhaps negligence, perhaps ignorance. So now, they need more temple workers, but not all the temple workers were prepared themselves and thus ashamed by the enthusiasm and turning out of the people! Once again, we see that sin makes a mess. The people’s failure at cleanliness combined with the Levitical lack of zeal could have made a proper celebration of the Passover impossible.

Finally, many of the people who came to celebrate the Passover… and did just that – eating the Passover meal… many of these people had not purified themselves, contrary to what was written (2 Chr 30:18). Eating this Passover meal while ceremonially unclean, was unlawful. And while this may have once again been due to ignorance – the Passover hadn’t been celebrated in a long time – what they did was still contrary to the written Law. Once again, sin makes a mess.

So what do you do? What do you do when the consequences of sins of the past still cling to you like glitter and make things messy? You cling. You cling to your merciful God. Sin makes a mess, by My God is merciful.

You can see how disaster is averted, and the worshiping of God continues by God’s mercy. First, is in the day that it was celebrated. Although they weren’t able to celebrate in the first month as prescribed, the LORD in his mercy provided provisions all the way back when he established this law. There, God says, “When any of you or your descendants are unclean… they are still to celebrate the LORD’s Passover, but they are to do it on the fourteenth day of the second month” (Nu 9:10-11). God knows that sin makes a mess. And sometimes he provides provisions right in his Word.

I can’t help but think of the greatest provision he has made for us. God’s law is good. When Jesus said, “Do this and you will live,” He was not lying. If I keep his commands perfectly, I keep the immortality he created me to have. But when you and I come face to face with God’s law, there’s no difference, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And so, what was meant to be a good and joyous thing, now towers over you and towers over me in judgment and condemnation. Oh Lord, who can stand? Who then can be saved? My sin makes a mess. It is on my hands, it is in my heart, it runs through my mind. I am altogether unclean, and therefore cannot enjoy the feast of heaven.

But God makes a provision, so to speak. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). God took our uncleanness away completely, becoming unclean himself. And he gave you instead a new robe of righteousness – “wedding clothes” as the Gospel reading puts it.

This is essentially how the 2nd crisis was averted as well. So, first, they couldn’t celebrate on the correct day, but God is merciful and gives provisions for a second day to celebrate. Then, second, not enough of the Levites had consecrated themselves to accommodate the large crowds that came to celebrate. And in that, too, not enough of the people consecrated themselves to sacrifice their own lambs as prescribed. But they go to their merciful God who already had in place a means of purification. “They brought burnt offerings to the temple of the LORD” (2 Chr 30:15) and consecrated themselves, and then served as mediators for the people.

Come to God for his mercy. Use the means he graciously gives to make you holy in his sight. “Be baptized and wash your sins away” (Acts 22:16) Ananias said to Paul. “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). “These [words] 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 20:31). Just like the Levites who had a means of purifying themselves for the festival, our merciful God holds out for you, not just one, but three means of cleansing from all sin. He covers you with his mercy again and again in different ways all connecting you to The Passover Lamb who truly does take away the sin of the world.

Go to God, expecting his mercy. As Hezekiah did when many ate the Passover meal even though they were unclean. The day they celebrated, God provided a provisionary day. The priests who were not yet consecrated, God gave them a means to be consecrated and they made use of those means. But this last one, this is flat out sinfulness. What they did was wrong. Perhaps we could try to excuse it by saying it was ignorance, but that’s a human excuse. God’s law is clear. This is sin. Just like the many sins we have committed and continue to commit. When that’s the case, what do we do? What did Hezekiah do to avert disaster this third time? He went to God and clung to his mercy.

Many people… had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God… even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary” (2 Chr 30:18-19). The king was confident in his prayer. He saw the evidences of faithful people setting their hearts once again on seeking God. He asked his merciful God to consider the people’s faith rather than their lack of outward, ceremonial purity – the mess that sin makes when they had rolled around in it for far too long. “And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people” (2 Chr 30:20).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we work and worship together, we know that we are not completely pure in heart, nor completely pure in the way we act. Sin makes a mess. Our motives are often mixed; we may be weak in our understanding. Depending upon God’s mercy, and learning from him, this is where we learn to let love cover over a multitude of sins (1 Pt 4:8). God’s love will cover our own mess of sin. And this most perfect peace of sins forgiven is at the same time filled with a restless yearning to help others find this same peace. Like Hezekiah, who couldn’t wait till next year to celebrate the Passover, invite your friend to come to this foretaste of the feast – clean or unclean, they are welcome here. Because although sin makes a mess, our God is merciful.

Hezekiah’s Passover stands out as one of the happiest occasions in the entire Old Testament (2 Chr 30:26). There may have been some glitter clinging to their jackets due to the mess that sin makes. But my God and your God is merciful and makes us clean.

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There will be a harvest (October 18, 2020)

November 6, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

There will be a harvest

Matthew 21:33-43

watch our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfZCmMdATDc

 

There will be a harvest. That is meant to sound both as a stern warning and a comforting promise. I feel like I’ve said that a lot recently. But that’s the way the Law and Gospel work. It is a stern warning to those on one side, and a comforting promise to those on God’s side. It’s two sides of the same coin. There will be a harvest. Ultimately, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps 24:1). So, which side are you on? Are you standing in the way of God and his harvest? Or are you bringing him the fruit of his vineyard?

There are many parts to the parable that Jesus told. It starts out like this, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place” (Mt 21:33). The landowner is God. The vineyard is God’s people, for whom he did so many things – planting, building a wall around, digging a winepress, and building a watchtower. God wants and gives all the best for his people. He loves and cares for his people. He provides for them, protects them, shows his love with no expense spared. The tenants, then, are the religious leaders. They were responsible for tending the Lord’s vineyard – his people – and returning a harvest of fruit – fruits of the Spirit. The servants, who were later sent are the prophets that came before Jesus. And the son, of course, is Jesus.

When the harvest time approached, [the landowner] sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way” (Mt 21:34-36). This really did happen to the prophets. There wasn’t a one who wasn’t persecuted. Many of them were physically beaten and mistreated. In Hebrews chapter 11, known as the “Hall of Faith” chapter of the Bible, in reference to the prophets, the writer notes, “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” (Heb 11:35-38). Those who escaped with their lives barely eked out an existence. Lacking many of the essentials of life, constantly on the move, some even living in caves and in the wilderness.

These harsh words were pointed straight at the religious leaders, who were given the task of caring for God’s people – tending his vineyard – and returning a harvest of fruit. Yet, for centuries they did not heed God’s messengers – the prophets. And now, they were rejecting Jesus too. They knew this parable was an accusation against them. It says in the very next verses, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them” (Mt 21:45). And yet, this pointed judgment ricocheted off their stony hearts. “They looked for a way to arrest [Jesus]” (Mt 21:46). And yet, he still lamented, just days later, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37).

Although I haven’t beaten, killed, or stoned anyone, I do warp, twist, and kill the messengers at times. I saw their message in two where it convicts me, and ignore the parts that are inconvenient for my sinful desires. I too beat, kill, and stone the prophets whenever I abandon God’s clear word and commands and twist them to suit my sinful desires. I don’t even think I have to go through the whole list. I think even the first 3 commandments are perhaps some of the hardest here.

You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). Have I loved other things more than God? Have I set myself up as a god when I understand that his message is pointed straight at my sin and I don’t like it, so I rewrite it or twist its meaning – cutting it out from the rest of Scripture?

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Ex 20:7). Does my language change based on my situation? Am I as innocent as a lamb on Sunday morning or when around my parents, but then besting the sailors when I lose my temper or am around certain friends?

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex 20:8). Do I place a permanent block in my schedule every week – set aside to hear God’s Word? A block of time that will not be removed, skipped, or forgotten no matter what comes up?

The list could go on, but you understand the point. These are messages from God that his servants bring. And do I treat them the same way as the tenants treated the servants? If so, then hear what the owner will do to those tenants: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end” (Mt 21:41). He will kick them out of the vineyard and give it to someone else.

But before he does that, the owner sends one more. “Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (Mt 21:37-39). Do you see the faulty logic here? Killing the son and previous servants is not a way to get on the owner’s good side to benefit from the wealth he has. And, they were already enjoying the inheritance! They were given the privilege of caring for the vineyard that the landowner planted, walled, completed with amenities, and protects. They were benefitted already when the vineyard produced fruit. But they refused to accept the authority of the master and his Son. They rebelled against him. Refused to acknowledge his rightful authority.

The leaders of Jesus’ day recognized that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. They wanted the inheritance for themselves, but there is no inheritance for them when they refused to accept him as their Savior. And what will the landowner do to the tenants when he come? He will bring those wretches to a wretched end… and will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.

So, how do you treat the master’s Son? Will you reject his Word as you reject the servants? Or will you receive him as God’s loving act of mercy. Once more, he comes to you. This time, not through servants or prophets, but sends his own Son. He takes on your very flesh. He walked this very earth. He knows your burdens. He sees the injustices and sinfulness. He takes it all onto himself – becoming sin for us – and burying it with him in the grave! “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:17).

I find that very interesting about this parable. After all the servants he sent. After all the times the tenants disgraced and abused the landowner’s goodness, he still sends his own son. And not with armed cavalry ready to enact swift judgment. No! He sends his son in love and mercy. Reaches out one more time. Reaches out to the tenants with forgiveness and grace. One last time before the final judgment.

Yes, there is judgment for all the times we’ve mistreated and killed his servants, when we twist or abandon his Word. Yes, we deserve, like the tenants in the parable, to be brought to a wretched end. Yes, we have at times rejected God and sought our own glory, our own comfort, our own way. But God sent his Son, our Savior, in mercy and forgiveness. He reached out to you in love – not bringing judgment upon you just yet. But giving you a lifeline by which you are restored.

Remember, there will be a harvest. One day the owner, the Lord God, will return! When he does come, how will he find you? Abusing his servants and rejecting his Son? Or, respecting his messengers, and receiving his Son? “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you” (2 Cor 6:2).

What does it look like, then, to be a tenant during the harvest who will give God his share of the crop at harvest time? For the spiritual leaders of God’s people – given the honor of watching over a portion of God’s vineyard: Be humble, accepting correction and guidance when needed, that you do not accidentally or purposefully mislead believers and keep the truth from them. Be faithful in your duties of proclaiming and teaching the word that God’s vineyard may produce fruit for him. For the fathers and mothers – given the joy of raising little shoots: Nurture your children with the Word regularly – not neglecting God and his Word. Work on the soil in your household that it may be healthy and produce abundant fruit. And model what you expect of your children in your own lives. For each one of you, responsible for your own soul: Be rooted in the Word of truth. Cultivate and produce fruits – gifts from God – and put them to use in service to God, planting seeds as you use your unique gifts.

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Forgive with God’s Mercy (Oct 11, 2020)

October 11, 2020
Dan Laitinen

Forgive with God’s Mercy

Matthew 18:21-25

Livestream link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKva067Dt9s

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Think about this: do you struggle with forgiveness? Some time ago I gave my word to someone under the guise of trust. But I felt betrayed when I felt that they broke that trust and my private confession became a very public affair. 

Do you struggle with forgiveness? Often it’s more difficult to forgive the people closest to us – those who live under our roof, or go to our school or church – than an acquaintance or stranger – because we wake up to do life with these people every day. And forgiveness feels like giving them a free pass to hurt us again. 

As a Christian forgiveness is some thing that you are going to need. Some of you have people you’re very mad at, and you’re in denial about the fact you haven’t forgiven them. Some of you have people you definitely haven’t forgiven that you avoid and you know you have a grudge. Some of you have little irritations in relationships that disturb you somewhat. A lot of you can’t think of anybody you need to forgive. But just wait…

Jesus says the anger that fuels unforgiveness is dangerous. It imprisons you starting in this life and going on into the next. But God offers another path. One that starts with his mercy and grace through Jesus and then flows from you to others. His mercy is freeing. His grace is forgiving. And forgiven people forgive.

In today’s sermon lesson from Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus doesn’t ask us, “Do you struggle with forgiveness?” No. He asks, no matter our offender, no matter their crime, “Why haven’t you forgiven them?” He gives Christians a command, 

 

“Forgive with God’s mercy.”

  1. Remember who you are
  2. Own the debt
  3. Trust God’s promises

Let’s evaluate. In the account from Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciple Peter approaches Jesus with a question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v.21) Some commentators note that the rabbinical law of the day said forgive your neighbor once. Ok. Forgive your neighbor twice. Ok. But if they sin against you a third time, you don’t have to forgive them. That was a popular formula. So Peter thought forgiving your neighbor seven times was pretty impressive. Triple the forgiveness and add one! 

But Jesus replies, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (v.22) Some translations make this 70 x 7 times, which is 490 times. Neither number is to be taken literally. Both of them tell us to just keep on forgiving indefinitely. Number-less forgiveness.

III. Remember who you are

“Indefinitely?!” You say. I can’t do that! Look how she betrayed my trust! Look how he ruined my life! Look how they treated me! 

Jesus answers: Forgive with God’s mercy. First, remember who you are. You’re my follower. A Christ-follower. A Christian. Why is forgiveness so critical for a Christian?

We find the answer to that question at the end of Jesus’ parable where Jesus teaches: 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The servant who originally had his large debt forgiven, is handed over to the jailers to be tortured. This is how God will treat those who do not forgive others from their heart. Jesus is saying that an unforgiving heart leads to eternal punishment. 

Objection: My eternal life depends on Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross, not whether I forgive my neighbor! Right? 

Answer: In Matthew 25 Jesus teaches about his return on Judgment Day. He gathers the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. He says to the sheep, “When I was hungry you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger you welcomed me in. I needed clothes you clothed me…Now take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Summary Matthew 25:31-39)

Point: When you closed your heart to the poor, when your faith was left in-activated, you proved you never received the eternal riches of Christ on the cross. 

Same point in Matthew 18:21-35. If you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart, you prove you’ve never received the eternal forgiveness of Jesus on his cross. 

I have two rose bushes in my front yard. One is green and buds. The other is brown and shrivelled. The green leaves and buds do not make the plant a rose bush. They indicate that the rose bush is indeed alive. 

There’s no better indicator that you’re alive and well in Christ – just as the Bible says you are by his atoning blood on the cross – than whether you forgive or not. 

Forgive with God’s mercy. Start by remembering who you are: a sinner who had an unpayable debt, paid for and forgiven at the highest cost: the blood of God himself. An alive Christian simply forgives. An unforgiving Christian is dying in the prison of unforgiveness. Sadly, left unresolved, a Christian starving others of forgiveness is imprisoned even before the die and bear the consequences. 

Rose bushes are planted to bloom. Hammers are made to hammer. Ovens are made to bake. Politicians are made to…instill fear and retain power. But Christians are made to forgive. “Forgiveness is God’s command.” (Martin Luther) Forgive with God’s mercy. First, remember who you are: a forgiven son and daughter of God. Forgiven people forgive.

III. Own the debt:

So forgiven people forgive. Now how will we do this? Notice the master in the parable. He takes pity (σπλαγχνίζομαι) on the first servant. The word σπλαγχνίζομαι literally means to have your heart go out to a person. By nature we want to characterize our offender. We want to monster-ize them. De-humanize them. 

Illustration: Imagine you’re at work. Let’s say you’ve lost a very important client to a co-worker who cheated. Now they’re getting a raise and you’re not. You’re complaining with other co-workers and friends around the water cooler and what do say about the co-worker who cut corners? “He’s a cheater.” That’s his DNA. The sum of his character and all he’s about! But a good friend asks you, “Wait. Dan. Haven’t you lied on your expense report? Doesn’t that make you a…” “Weeellll,” you say, “Yes. But you have to understand the circumstances. It’s complicated.” You too have been a cheater in your mind or actions!

Therefore, take pity (σπλαγχνίζομαι) means seeing the other person – the offender – not as a caricature, but a human being just like yourself. Not excusing the behavior. Rather, empathizing with the fact that they’re human. You’re human. They’re sinful. You’re sinful. You must identify as from sinner to sinner – to empathize, not characterize – your offender. You’ll never escape the prison of unforgiveness if you always and ever caricaturize. 

Second, the master cancels the debt. This is the heart of forgiveness. Forgiveness is costly. It’s personal. It hurts. But the master owns the debt in order to cancel it completely. The servant owes the master 10,000 talents. A denarii was a day’s wage for the average worker. An average annual salary was about 300 denarii. One talent was worth 5,000-10,000 denarii. Some commentators estimate that this servant’s debt was upward of a trillion US dollars today. The first question is how did he lose that much money?! One answer the commentators give is the servant wasn’t like what we think of servants (a cook, gardener or butler) but this servant was like a vassal-king who owed allegiance to his master: the rich and powerful overlord king. The overlord king had entrusted a large amount of money – at a great risk of his kingdom – to be invested by the vassal king who would build an empire: infrastructure, buildings, the necessities to have more security and expand his kingdom. But what has this servant done? He’s either incompetant or corrupt! He’s blown through trillions of dollars and doesn’t have anything to show for it. He is wicked. He is guilty. He deserves punishment. The master had every right to take the servant for all he was worth: house, money and family. But instead the master absorbed the loss. He cancelled the debt. The king ate the loss. That’s what forgiveness is: it’s paying down the debt of your offender, eating the loss yourself, and letting them free. 

ILLUSTRATION: My vicar year I was at a pastor’s conference in Omaha, Nebraska, when my bishop (instructor-pastor) told me, “Vicar, my friend asked if you’d drive a used car that he just bought for his son to such-and-such a place. He will lead you there. It’s sitting in the parking lot. By the way, do you know how to drive stick?” I had driven stick a few times before years before, so I thought, “How hard can this be?” Well, I got into the car that looked 30 years old and the first thing this friend showed me was how to turn it on. You had to put the right blinker on, then put the key in, then blinker off, then crank the key fast and it should fire up. Sure enough, right blinker, key in, blinker off and crank and it started! I managed to get the car up to speed, following this stranger, and onto the highway. But suddenly the car started to smell like smoke and the speedometer started slowing. I got over to the right lane and there was smoke. I pulled over to the shoulder and the car halted to a stop. My bishop’s friend never saw it happen. He kept going for miles. I didn’t have his number. I didn’t know where I was. I’ve just probably burnt out this guy’s car he just bought for his son. Hours later, after a tow and ride back to the hotel, I felt like absolute garbage. It could’ve been the car, but I felt it was really on me for saying I could drive stick. But I had probably burnt out the clutch. My bishop’s friend never asked for money or repair. He never even bothered me about it. He ate the loss. At no cost I was off the hook free.

So Christians cancel the debt. Eat the cost. It will hurt. But forgiven people forgive. If you’re forgiving only the offenses that cost you nothing – the offenses that are free from suffering – and you only hold on to the offenses that hurt, you’re doing it all wrong. Forgiveness should hurt. That’s the point. You’re taking the debt and absorbing it yourself. Not shaking people down until you feel like they should be forgiven.

Finally, the master lets him go. (v.27) The servant who was forgiven a trillion dollars can’t let go of quite a minor debt owed to him by a fellow-servant. So what does he do? He throws him in prison until he should pay it all back. Not so the Christian. In order to own their debt – really forgive – take pity, cancel the debt, let go. Objection: but they’ll do it again if I don’t hold them accountable! Answer: Forgiveness is cancelling the debt. They need to be held accountable for not hurting you or others again. That’s where building or re-building trust comes in. But to really help that person, before rebuilding trust, they need to know they’re forgiven. You will forgive 70 x 7 even as trust and reform happen. 

III. Trust in God’s Promises

So far we’ve seen the urgency and necessity of a Christian to forgive. We’ve seen how to do it. But what’s the ultimate key to forgiveness? The key to forgiveness is not simply following a formula or practicing principles. Forgiveness means following Jesus. 

This parable is about a King who has great wealth and power. He is wise, just and fair. He holds his servants’ destiny in his hands. He has a book with all the debts and debtors. He’s wise and fair and just, awarding punishment where it is due. 

But this King is also perfectly loving. He takes pity, cancels debts therefore freeing prisoners. 

This King is Jesus Christ your Savior. He is perfectly just, fair and righteous. His heaven is made for the holy and righteous. What you and I were not. So out of love he took pity on you and me, sinners. He didn’t cancel our debt at the risk of his kingdom. He cancelled the debt at the cost of his life. He cancelled the debt, owning your sins and mine. It was personal. It was costly. It hurt a lot. Why did he do it? To set you free. Free from sin. Free from guilt. Free to live for an audience of one in a life of worship. Free to forgive. Because that is who you are: forgiven. Trust in God’s promise: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Carpenters build. Bakers bake. Jesus forgives you. And forgiven people forgive. So forgive with God’s mercy. Amen.

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I will give you what is right (Oct 4, 2020)

October 7, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

I will give you what is right

Matthew 20:1-16

Livestream link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbZiLNLDDMU

 

Maybe you’ve heard the question – meant to etch away at Christianity for being unfair: “Could Adolf Hitler have gone to heaven if he had repented on his deathbed… and would he have passed Mother Theresa on her way to hell if she had not?” In essence, “Do bad people go to heaven ahead of people seemingly better by far.” That’s the question Jesus is answering in the parable he tells his disciples. What do you think?

We’ve read the story. A vineyard owner goes out to hire some workers for his vineyard. This was a very common scene at the time. Freelance laborers would gather in the morning in the marketplace in hopes of being hired for the day. The vineyard owner hires a number of laborers in the morning – probably about 6am – and agrees to pay them a denarius. A denarius was not an unusual wage for a day’s work, yet, at the same time, it was on the generous side for unskilled labor. They agree and go to work. But as the day goes on, the vineyard owner realizes he needs more help. So he goes out and finds more workers again and again at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm. Even just an hour before quitting time he goes out, at 5pm, and hires some more workers. To all these added workers, he simply says, “I will pay you whatever is right” (Mt 20:4).

Finally, when evening came, it was time to get paid! And as the latecomers were surprisingly paid a denarius, the first ones hired got excited at the generosity of the landowner! “Surely we are getting bonuses!” they must have been thinking. “Because we bore the burden of the work through the heat of the day!” But when they were paid only a denarius, they grumbled and complained. “You are being unfair!” they said. “We worked longer, we ought to get more!”

I’ll go back to the question I began with today. Could Adolf Hitler have gone to heaven if he had repented on his deathbed and would he have passed Mother Theresa on her way to hell if she had not? While the premise is absurd – meant to make us writhe a bit – the answer, theoretically at least, is quite simple. Yes on both accounts.

When given an extreme comparison like this, we might be thinking, “Why is God so unfair? Why does he admit bad people to heaven ahead of people seemingly better by far? People who have been in the church longer, working harder, and bearing the burden of persecution most of their lives?”

The disciples weren’t immune to this kind of thinking. In fact, this parable is directed at them! A rich young man came to Jesus and asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). To cut to the chase, toward the end of the conversation, Jesus revealed this man’s problem of the heart by telling him to “sell your possessions and give to the poor… Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). The rich man went away sad, because he had great wealth. And Jesus concluded, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23). And here’s what I wanted to get to: Peter then said, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27). What reward will there be for us who have followed you from the beginning and given up all we have?!

Sadly, I think we too can easily fall into that kind of thinking. I’ve been a Christian all my life. I’ve never fallen away. I volunteer at church. I’m in Bible Study and worship. Surely there is some greater reward due to me. Yes, all believers are saved – whether they come to faith early in life or late in life; whether they have a clean past or a dark past – but since I have walked the road longer, and borne the burden longer, surely there is something more due to me! It’s only fair, right?

And that’s our downfall. Expecting God to be fair in this way. Expecting to receive something better and maybe even working towards that goal. Well, we confessed what is actually fair at the beginning of the service today. “I confess that I am by nature sinful… I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity.” There is in me a stubborn determination to resist that very knowledge. Instead, during the week I find I am hungry to know just the opposite of what I’ve confessed. I daily enter my world searching for the evidence that I am actually a pretty good guy doing well. And although, to the observer, my life seems to “work,” don’t let me fool you. I cannot resist the awful knowledge that God is entirely right about be. I take my place among the murderers and silently slip in among the thieves. I am nothing but a sinner fit to be condemned. That’s what God’s Word says. And in moments of brutal clarity, I pass the same sentence on myself.

That’s when I die. I am crucified, and I die with Christ. There was nothing for God to do with me but condemn me. That’s exactly what he did… except… he substituted me with his Son. I see the awful death of Jesus and know that it was mine. It didn’t happen to me, but it should have – that would have been fair. And in coming to that dreadful conclusion about myself, the identification with him is complete. I am crucified with Christ. This is the death that makes me free! Thanks be to God that he does NOT give me what is fair.

Now I see that he pays me what is right – not according to what I have done, but according to his mercy and love! The reality is that everyone is a sinner afterall. And although the symptoms of this fatal disease do vary greatly from case to case, everyone will die from it. If we are talking about earnings and wages, “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). The remarkable thing is not the apparent goodness or badness of people in heaven or hell. The gift, the miracle, the wonder is that anyone ultimately receives goodness from God – a wage much better than we deserve, “The gift of God is eternal life” (Rm 6:23).

God, “the vineyard owner” thankfully doesn’t operate in the usual way. What a person deserves is beside the point. It’s his generous heart that determines what a person gets. So this parable carries with it both a warning and a promise for us. A warning that all comparisons based on merit or work do not belong in God’s kingdom. This can be a hard pill for us to swallow since almost everything else in life is based on merit. The promise, though, is that our relationship with God is based solely on grace which he lavishes upon us in abundance. The key is to shift our focus. The story only offends our sense of fairness when we compare ourselves to other workers. It’s the difference the vineyard owner points out when he responds to the complainers, “I am not being unfair to you” (Mt 20:13), rather, “I have the right to do what I want… I am generous” (Mt 20:15).

God understands this is not the typical human way of thinking. He even said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Is 55:8). So, when we find ourselves casting an envious eye upon the generosity of God toward another, we need to put our “spiritual blinders” on and focus solely on how generously God has treated me personally. Not comparing myself to others. Not demanding better thinking that’s fair. Demanding fairness from God is setting our sights fatally low. Those who set their sights merely on what’s fair, tragically, will receive it. The vineyard owner even said, “take your pay and go” (Mt 20:14). It’s an echo of Jesus’ judgment on the last day, “Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire” (Mt 25:41). Your pay, your wage, what’s fair for sin, is death.

But, to those who don’t demand. Rather understand what they rightfully deserve and plead for mercy – those who wait on God’s goodness, focusing solely on their own unworthiness and His mercy, will receive it! When we keep our eyes where they belong – fixed on God – then we have a correct view of our worth and labor. Then, when God places a denarius in our hands – the denarius being salvation – we can marvel that the Lord isn’t fair! Thanks be to God! He doesn’t give us what we deserve; no, he gives us what we don’t!

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