An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Trust in God’s Healing (October 14, 2018)

October 17, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Trust in God’s Healing

2 Kings 5:14-27

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that by having nothing, you gain everything. In all observable circumstances, nothing just never becomes something. And yet, that’s what Jesus tells a rich man when he asked how to gain eternal life. Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure” (Mk 10:21). In fact, Jesus went on to say that everyone who gives up home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children will receive a hundred times as much (Mk 10:29). Look at it again though. Although, when we read through a section like Mark 10 in the Bible, we might think that the rich man or the disciples are left with nothing – that Jesus is saying give up everything. But that’s not really the case, is it? Notice, Jesus says to the rich man, “Go, sell everything you have… Then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). And he says everyone who gives up home, family, etc. for me and the gospel, will receive a hundred times as much (Mk 10:29). You are never really left with nothing. Jesus is teaching that when you have him, you have everything.

Regardless, it’s still a hard lesson. It’s a hard lesson because we easily fall into the mindset that having Christ is the final piece, something to crown the top of our lives. Yes, it’s at the top, we make it look very important, but that trust in Christ often only stays on top when all the other pieces are neatly in place. If something else in our lives is missing, then all our concern, and all our energy is on getting that piece back in our lives. That’s what happened with the rich man when Jesus told him how to inherit eternal life. He had his financial stability, and stacked on top of that he had his obedience to the Law of Moses, and stacked upon that he had his faith in God. But Jesus saw right through this. And so that the man could see through it as well, Jesus asked him to remove one of those stabilizing blocks – his wealth – to see if God would really remain at the top.

You and I do that too. If you’ve ever lost your job, you perhaps know how desperate it can be to try to figure something out. You wrestle with trusting God that it will work out. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like you will have enough time in the day. Sometimes medical trouble puts you out of commission. Sometimes the car breaks down or the house needs a new roof. These things can easily consume our lives. It’s easy to keep God at the top when our lives are all in order. Not so easy when one or more of our building blocks are missing.

I think a lot of this has to do with what is tangible. We are physical beings with 5 senses. We trust what we can see, touch, and hear. But when someone says, “Trust me” it can be hard. It can be hard even when it’s God who says, “Trust me, not your senses.” A man named Naaman had been driven to desperate measures. Leprosy not only consumed his body, but his heart and mind as well. He knew this disease was progressive. He knew that people rarely recovered from it. Yet, trying to find some means of healing consumed his life. As commander of the king’s army, he probably had access to all the help he wanted. I’m sure he tried the balms and ointments prescribed by the king’s physicians to cure him of his leprosy, but nothing worked. He was driven to desperate measures. That’s probably why he trusted the word of a slave girl who told him that a prophet from Samaria could heal him. So there Naaman found himself standing in front of the prophet Elisha. “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed” (2 Kgs 5:10). Not exactly what he had in mind. He figured a prophet was someone who would wave his hands and speak powerful words. But simply washing in the dirty Jordan river? Once again, the tangible overcame Naaman’s trust. “Aren’t Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (2 Kgs 5:12). “How can washing heal this disease! You don’t think I’ve done that?!”

At the encouragement of his servants, his hope of being cleansed was restored and he trusted the prophet’s words. That’s where the section we read today picks up. Naaman washed in the Jordan seven times, and his flesh was restored. In fact, it seems that God even restored his flesh to better than it was before the leprosy. The Bible says it became clean like that of a young boy! Naaman was healed, just as God’s prophet said he would be. But was it really the waters of the Jordan that healed Naaman? Was it really the number of times he washed or how he washed that healed him? No. It was God’s promise attached to the washing. It was trust in what God promised he would do that healed Naaman of his leprosy.

Although God most certainly can heal diseases of the body – I’m sure you know someone who has fully recovered from a very dismal diagnosis – healing Naaman of his leprosy isn’t the main point of this biblical account. You see, leprosy on the body is nowhere near as deadly as leprosy of the heart. And God is able to heal leprosy of the heart as well.

This kind of leprosy is a lot more difficult to wrap our minds around because it doesn’t really seem tangible, like a skin disease. Knowing that, God did a lot to make it tangible. For instance, God gave many laws and sacrifices to the Israelites to make sin very vivid – constant reminders that sin clings to us and makes us filthy in God’s sight. As an example, God gave many laws regarding those who had leprosy. In Leviticus 14, it is stated that if someone recovers from leprosy, he was to show himself to the priest who would then perform a ritual which very vividly portrays the death of the sinful nature and the life we have from God. The priest would take two birds. One bird would be sacrificed over fresh water; the other bird, after being dipped into the same fresh water, would be released into the open fields. Interestingly, you probably noticed that this ritual also portrays what is happening spiritually in baptism. God was showing his people just what it means to be cleansed not just of leprosy, but of sin! And we still get that picture today as in baptism the leprosy of the sinful nature is destroyed, and the new man arises to live a life free from sin!

God proclaims this in his word again and again. God has blessings to give. He’s earned blessings for you and he holds them out to you – namely, the blessings of forgiveness from all your sins, the blessing of eternal life and of salvation! And he makes them tangible in the waters of baptism which trickle down your temples and wash away your sins. He makes it tangible in the bread you eat and the wine you drink, at the same time receiving Christ to nourish and sustain your faith. He makes it tangible in his Word where you read true stories about forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation. These gifts he holds out to you, to heal your soul. Faith trusts God’s promise. Faith sees what neither eyes can see, nor hands can touch. Faith trusts God’s Word and receives his blessings.

And then faith acts! We’ve seen how God certainly has the power to heal physical ailments and diseases. We’ve seen how God has the power to do the even more difficult thing of healing the soul – cleansing you from within and removing the disease of sin which would leave us eternally dead. But God doesn’t only heal the heart. He also heals the actions which flow from the heart.

Take a look at the difference between the actions of Naaman and Gehazi, for example. After seeing the great power of God to heal, and seeing that God does indeed provide for those who trust in him, Naaman believed! “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel” (2 Kgs 5:15). And moved by faith, he wanted to give a gift of thanks to God by providing for God’s servant Elisha. “Please,” he said, “accept a gift from your servant” (2 Kgs 5:15). And even when Elisha refused to accept it, Naaman urged him all the more. He was determined to give, because God had not just healed him outwardly, he didn’t give reluctantly. God healed him through and through. This gift came from a heart that was wholly grateful for the gracious mercy of God! Elisha still refused. Although he could rightly accept this gift given from a heart of faith, he didn’t want anything interfering with the Gospel that Naaman would take back home as he declared the wonders of God! Naaman wanted to give from a heart of faith, but for those who didn’t yet believe, it could easily be seen as payment for a gift from God. And that would make the true God appear no different from any other false God. It takes a healed heart to truly understand healed actions!

It’s also interesting to hear about how God works through healed actions. We know from the Bible that Naaman went home healed. His skin was healed. His heart was healed. And his actions were healed. He even showed that by asking forgiveness for something he knew he would have to do when he returned to his home country. “When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also – when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this” (2 Kgs 5:18). In this way, Naaman lived out his faith in his home country. In fact, there are even cuneiform tablets which show the result of Naaman’s healed actions. The tablets indicated that the king whom Naaman served, the Pharaoh of Egypt, came to worship one God – rather than the many Egyptian gods they had served for such a long time. In fact, the cuneiform tablets even mention that the one God this Pharaoh served was “Aton,” the Egyptian word for “Adonai” – the Lord!

A full healing moves us to new levels of understanding and trusting in God. Naaman knew that the Lord God was capable of great and miraculous things when his leprosy was healed by trusting in God’s promise connected with the washing. Naaman’s heart was also cleansed that day, and as evidence he confessed his faith and was moved to give out of healed actions! Elisha’s healed heart was on display as well that day as he refused the gift, not wanting anything to hinder the Gospel and trusting that God would continue to provide just as he always has. You too, can trust the Lord. When the physical and tangible things go wrong, trust that God has power over nature and will provide what you need even despite all evidence to the contrary. Trust this because God has already done the far more merciful thing of healing your heart even when you or I have not deserved it. For all this we ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him! Amen.

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It’s All About the Message (October 7, 2018)

October 8, 2018
Brock Groth

It’s All About the Message

2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2

I’d like to teach you all a little Telugu.  Telugu is the language spoken in the state in India where Heather and I lived.  The Telugu phrase I want to teach you is “chudadaaniki baagundi.”  So repeat after me: “Chudadaaniki….baagundi.”  See, languages aren’t that hard.  “Chudadaaniki baagundi” literally means “to see is good” or “to look is good,” or sort of like we would say in English, “looks good.”  Well let me tell you a story about chudadaaniki baagundi.  One day at our place in India I heard some noise outside of our front door, so I opened the door and saw the cleaning lady, who cleaned a number of our buildings, sweeping our front porch.  Wanting to make a good impression in our neighborhood where most people don’t like Christianity, we always tried to be friendly and nice to everyone, so I looked at the floor and I said to her, “Oh, looks good—chudadaaniki baagundi.”  Then I immediately remembered that not two days earlier a Telugu friend taught me that the phrase “chudadaaniki baagundi” was the common Telugu idiom for saying that someone is attractive.  So I quick looked up and saw her stunned face, then I pointed to the floor and said “Yep, the floor, chudadaaniki baagundi—looks good.”  Then I turned around, went inside the house and closed the door.  I went from wanting to show her that Christians are good people, to scaring her by making her think I called her attractive, and I ended up with, “Yep, this floor sure is attractive.”  Not exactly the message I wanted to convey.  It’s all about the message.  That was definitely a message failure. 

But that wasn’t the only message failure I’ve had.  Heather and I also spent some time in China teaching English and leading Bible studies in Beijing, like Pastor Ehlers and Ruby.  We used to ride the subway a lot, and just a few times I took what I called “fishing trips” where I would just sit on subway reading a Chinese-English Bible and wait for someone to comment on it because someone eventually always would.  One time, sure enough a poorer-looking man sits next to me and says, “Sheng Jing,” which means “Holy Scriptures” in Mandarin, so he was just reading the cover.  And what did I say to him?  Thankfully it wasn’t chudadaaniki baagundi or its equivalent.  Instead, do you know what I said back to him?  Nothing.  I got scared.  I thought that since he was poorer he probably didn’t know any English and my Chinese was pretty bad that we’d both just end up being embarrassed, so I didn’t even respond.  I didn’t even share the message, the gospel message.  And it’s all about the message.  For us Christians, it’s all about that message—the good news of Jesus.  That was definitely a message failure—a gospel message failure.

If you and I counted, how many gospel message failures do you think we’ve had in our lives?  I think we’d have more than we’d even realize, and certainly more than we’d like to admit.  Whether it’s saying the wrong thing and embarrassing ourselves or not saying anything at all or even the way we live, I bet the number of gospel message failures is staggering, especially with the number of people we come into contact with in our lives.  The apostle Paul is going to help us with that in this letter to the Corinthians.  He’s going to help show us that it’s all about the message—the gospel message—and he’s going to show us three important things about that gospel message.

It isn’t really surprising that Paul had to talk about these things with the Corinthians because you can tell from his letters to the Corinthians that he had a difficult time with them.  The Corinthians struggled with so many things.  They had created divisions in their church.  They had problems with sexual immorality.  And now they were entertaining false teachers who were badmouthing Paul and even badmouthing the gospel message he was preaching.  The Corinthians had lost focus on what it’s all about for Christians. 

So Paul reminds them by reminding them of the message he was preaching and why.  “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”  That’s why Paul was sharing the message: he was simply trying to honor Jesus and his love.  Jesus died for all, therefore all died.  God told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the tree they would surely…..die.  They ate, and therefore death came as a punishment upon all people.  Yet Jesus died for the sins of all people, therefore in God’s eyes all people’s sins are paid for—it was as if they had all died.  The punishment that brought us death was put on Jesus. 

And it was learning about that message that put everything into perspective for Paul.  The love of Jesus changes everything for a Christian.  “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new has come!”  Paul once looked at everything from an old, worldly, earthly perspective.  He even saw Christ in an earthly way.  Before he came to faith, Paul looked at Jesus and just saw a man from Nazareth.  He saw a man who teaching false things about the Jewish faith.  He saw a man who was destroying God’s religion.  He only saw the message of Christ from a worldly, earthly point of view.

How do you do with your view of everything?  Do you sometimes see Jesus and the gospel message in a worldly way?  We all do sometimes.  We often fall into that same old busyness in our daily lives with family, work, friends, and our own relaxation time.  We slip into that old daily grind and forget why we’re here on this earth in the first place.  When it all adds up, too often we lose focus on what this life is all about.  We lose focus on who Jesus is and what that means.  It makes us look at Jesus in that old, worldly way.

When we do that, it causes us to look at other people in that old, worldly way, too.  So often our boss is just our boss.  Our neighbor across the street is just our neighbor across the street.  Our friend is just our friend.  Our non-church friends are just our non-church friends, as if we’re supposed to segregate them or something.  Our relative who is on a dangerous path in life is just our earthly relative.  And there might be other examples of people like that in our lives.  When we lose focus of the message, who Jesus is and what he did, we tend to see people in that old, worldly way.  We fail to include them in the “all” in “Christ died for all.”

You know who else we fail to include sometimes in the “all” in “Christ died for all”?  Ourselves.  Christ died for all, and that includes you and me.  That means every time we’ve lost focus in this life—God isn’t counting it against us, those times are gone.  Every time we’ve look at something or someone from the wrong perspective—completely paid for, gone.  Every time we’ve failed to include someone else in the “all”—it’s gone.  Every time we’ve looked at Jesus in that old, worldly way—gone.  “[Christ] died for all, therefore all died…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  Yes, those old sins of ours deserve death.  But Christ died for all, therefore the old is gone—forever.  Christ has restored our relationship with God.  We are made new.

For God, it’s all about that message.  For God, since the fall into sin it’s always been about that message—your forgiveness—and he has put that message in your mind and he has put that message on your heart.   And now he wants you to put it on your lips.  “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”  Christ’s ambassadors.  The one who died for the sins of all people, the one who directs the world and gives all things, the Judge of all the earth has not only forgiven us and brought us into his family but has also appointed us as his messengers to the world.  He makes his appeal through us. 

In a little bit, you’re going to hear Paul call us “God’s coworkers.”  If God was in your office and worked with you on your team, what’s your success rate going to be?  100%.  So why do we get so shy about being Christ’s ambassadors and sharing the gospel message?  I think sometimes we get afraid to share it with people, like I did on that subway in Beijing.  There are different reasons for that, whether it’s a language or cultural barrier, or fear of a harsh reaction from someone, or fear of committing the don’t-talk-about-religion faux pas in this culture, or the fear of looking like a Christian fanatic that non-Christians get tired of. 

You know what, though?  We have no reason to be afraid.  Now what I’m about to say, missionaries across the world might be shocked to hear at first, but ultimately I think they’d agree.  Mission work is easy.  That’s right, mission work is easy.  Sure, there are difficulties and challenges that come up no matter where you do mission work, whether it’s in China or in India or in some cul-de-sac off of 31st St.  But when you get down to it, the nuts and bolts of mission work is easy.  And that’s for three reasons.  First of all, who’s your coworker?  The all-powerful God of the universe.  Enough said.  Secondly, determining who we can tell about the gospel message is also easy: Christ died for all.  You see a human being, you know Jesus died for their sins.  God has made that part easy; it’s universal.  Thirdly, God has even made the message itself really easy.

I told you earlier about a couple of message failures I’ve had.  Let me tell you another story.  In Beijing I did some English tutoring at Intel the computer company.  They wanted me to come in and just talk with their employees a couple of times a week to work on their conversational English because their American counterparts couldn’t understand them over the phone.  So I would go in twice a week and just talk with them.  There was one man in that office named Jack.  Jack was an interesting man, maybe 25 years old.  Whenever you would tell Jack something he would have this skeptical look on his face and he would always disagree in some way.  One day in one of our tutoring sessions they started asking me basic questions about Christianity because they knew almost nothing and they knew what I was going to school for, so this time I didn’t shy away.  There was a whiteboard, so all I did was write out a quick history of salvation and a quick diagram of God’s Great Exchange.  The first two humans God created were perfect but then they sinned, and they brought pain and suffering and sadness to all people.  But instead of just crumpling up the world and throwing it away, God decided he was going to send a Savior.  So he directed everything in the world for the coming of that Savior, and when the time had fully come he sent his Son.  His Son, Jesus, came and lived a perfect life in our place and died for the punishment of our sins; that’s God’s Great Exchange.  If you don’t know God’s Great Exchange, Paul basically says it in verse 21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Christ took our sin and gave us his righteousness.  That’s God Great Exchange.  That’s it; that’s about all I said.  And when I got done explaining it there was a bit of silence as everyone was thinking about it.  I looked at Jack, and sure enough he had that critical look on his face.  Then he said, “It’s perfect.  It makes total sense.”  I was shocked because I had never heard Jack utter those words before—my face probably looked like that Indian cleaning lady.  And from that day, there were a few of those people who called themselves “Christians” in later class periods.

And what did I do?  I didn’t do anything extraordinary.  I didn’t make some eloquent argument.  I just simply told them the basic Christian message, and God our coworker worked the miracle of faith through it, even in Jack’s heart.  You do that and you never know what could happen.  Mission work, when you get down to it, is easy because the message is easy.  Christ died for all, therefore all died.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  The Bible is a big book, but that’s the Bible in a nutshell, and that’s the message we get to share.  It’s all about that simple message. 

So go share it with the world.  Don’t wait.  It’s all about the message and it’s an urgent message.  That’s the final thing in this section Paul wanted to get across to the Corinthians, “As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  So we share Christ’s love today because tomorrow might be the Last Day.  Christ’s love compels us, so we take advantage of every opportunity in our lives to share Christ.  You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.  And who knows?  Maybe this moment that you get to share the gospel is the pinnacle moment in that person’s life, the moment everything changes for them.   And you get to be the messenger.

So have no fear, you know the message.  Even if you embarrass yourself while trying to convey the message and accidentally call someone attractive, it’s OK.  Thanks to Christ you know it’s all about the message.  The message to all.  The message to share.  The message today.  Amen.

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Christian Jealousy (September 30, 2018)

October 1, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Christian Jealousy

Numbers 11:16, 24-29

There’s something I love that I’m finally able to do once again. Now that school is back in session atop a hill in Mequon, Wisconsin, I finally get to watch the Seminary chapel services once again. It’s funny how sometimes it really takes some distance to truly appreciate something. When I attended Seminary, it’s not that I didn’t like going to chapel, but at times it just became routine. Now, however, I really look forward to the opportunity to be able to sing hymns with others during my morning devotion and listen to someone else preach! And don’t worry, I won’t be offended if you say you also enjoy hearing a different voice from time to time. Something new can be quite refreshing from time to time.

However, there’s something that happens at least once while I am listening to another person give a devotion, especially when they preach on a section of the Bible that I’ve just preached on. I find myself get jealous, thinking, “Wow, this speaker just has a way with words that I wish I had.” Or “Oh, why didn’t I think of that application!” I hear the great points in their devotions, and rather than simply listening, taking it to heart, and praising God that his word was brought to me and many others in such a way; sadly, my first thoughts are often jealousy, and wishing I had those gifts.

I know some of you are teachers. Maybe you do peer reviews, or lesson planning with others. Do you sometimes fall into these same traps? Students, I know I have often competed with classmates for better grades on tests and essays. In fact, I think in any employment and even in things we do for enjoyment, we often get competitive and become jealous of the gifts of others or the way things turn out. Sometimes we can just be really hard to please.

When you get down to it, jealousy really stems from discontentment. And once that seed of discontentment is planted, it can easily follow a rough, downward spiral. For example, the reading for today gives us a look at what it was like to be living in the wilderness as you follow God through his servant Moses to a new land and a new home. These Israelites had seen God’s wonders displayed when he sent 10 plagues before delivering Israel from Egypt. And when their escape seemed in vain because they were caught between a vast sea and the powerful army of a mighty nation, God provided them a way to cross the sea on dry ground, even holding up an entire army before destroying it in the sea. When the Israelites were hungry, God provided mana. When they were thirsty, he provided water from a rock. Even when they grew tired of the same old food, he provided them with meat to eat. But the discontentment, the grumbling and complaining still didn’t stop. Last week we heard about a time when Aaron and Miriam, who were like Moses’ right and left hand, they rebelled against Moses out of jealousy. Finally, Moses had enough. “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me” he said (Nu 11:14).

The Lord answered this prayer by having Moses appoint 70 elders who are known as leaders and officials among the people. They were to share the burden of the people with Moses so that he would not have to carry it alone. Yet, as the elders were standing before the tent of the Lord, once again the Israelites grew jealous. Two of the elders, you see, did not go to the assembly. They remained in the camp. We aren’t told why. Perhaps they had some duty to take care of. Perhaps they just didn’t want to go. But God, in his wisdom decided to bless these two men, along with the rest of the 70 elders with the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that was on Moses. And as a sign of God’s approval, the 70 elders, whether at the assembly or not, were able to prophesy for a short time.

Obviously, this caused quite a commotion because news quickly reached Moses. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” a young man reported (Nu 11:27). “Moses, my lord, stop them!” Joshua insisted (Nu 11:28). Why? Why stop this great thing? Why stop something that God is clearly working through? Yet, this same thought of jealousy can be heard echoing throughout history. You can hear it echo in the disciples’ report in the gospel reading, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mk 9:38). You can hear it echo even in your own thoughts, and my own words. “Why couldn’t I have thought of that perfect application in my sermon?” “Why does that other church always have so many attending their events?” “Why does this person or group get so much attention when we are sharing the gospel too?”

It all stems from discontentment and jealousy. I want to be great. I want recognition. Really, it’s no different than the sinful nature finding satisfaction in earning my own salvation. Look how I can keep God’s commands! Look how I can shine before God. Yet, because we know that is wrong, because we know that salvation comes from Christ alone, our sinful nature has to find another way to rear its ugly head. So, rather than earning my own salvation, it all about jealousy, it becomes all about others being saved by Christ through me!

The readings today talk specifically about jealousy and envy in ministry, but you know if affects every other part of life as well. I see a parking lot full of cars and I begin to pick out which ones I wish I had. I learn more about you and I wish I had your amount of free time, or your position at work, or your perfect relationships with others. This jealousy feeds our discontentment, and discontentment feeds jealousy, until we are on a rough, downward spiral and not appreciating any of the blessings God has given us. Every good gift is from God, remember? And you are confessing this truth every time you say in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”. You learned what this means. “I believe that God created me and all that exists, and that he gave me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my mind and all my abilities.” Does this sound familiar? “And I believe that God still preserves me by richly and daily providing clothing and shoes, food and drink, property and home, spouse and children, land, cattle, and all I own… All this God does only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserved it. For all this I ought to thank and praise him.” Does jealousy or envy show that you believe this? Isn’t discontentment concerning anything really showing discontentment with God? Isn’t it saying that I deserve more and others deserve less?

God has blessed you beyond measure. Take another look at all that you do have and consider, what if God didn’t give me this. Contentment isn’t having everything you want, it’s wanting what you already have! Now as you are thinking about all the things you have been blessed with – yes, things, but also your abilities, your life and livelihood, and everything else – consider what Christ rightly deserved, but gave up so he could have you. A life free from the emotional pain of friends who would betray him, accusers who would crucify him. A courtyard of soldiers mocking him and shaking their fists rather than halls of angels praising his glorious name. “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be held on to; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Php 2:6-8). Jesus did all of this because you are his most important treasure. A life with you is what he wanted more than anything else.

Now that we have seen how God condemns jealousy, I want to show you a kind of jealousy that God actually commends! If you want to be jealous, grow in “Christian Jealousy”! And it’s actually quite interesting, you only need to change one letter to know what I am talking about. Not being jealous, but zealous! It’s one of those words we don’t use very often, but it really puts a positive spin on jealousy. Jealousy is seeking self-importance or wanting something for myself. Zealous is wanting something for someone else, wanting their honor. So “Christian Jealousy” is really being zealous for Christ. And here’s what it looks like:

It’s a man, who has been given the high honor of delivering an oppressed nation from their oppressors, given the ability to do great and wondrous things, even chosen of all the prophets there ever were to see God face to face – and yet, when God decides that he share some of this honor with others he says, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Nu 11:29). Of course, I’m talking about Moses. It’s a man who has been called the second Elijah! A man who had a large following of his own as he proclaimed God’s message of repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is near. A man who was given the distinct honor of baptizing the Christ – the anointed one of God. And yet, when John’s own disciples were jealous for him, informing that many are now going to Jesus instead, John said, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn 3:30). It’s a man who received a special visit from Jesus after he ascended into heaven, to appoint him as an apostle. A man who had great wisdom and spoke very persuasively. A man who could be credited with starting a vast number of the New Testament churches and spreading the message of the gospel far and wide. And yet, he humbly says, “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle… But by the grace of God I am what I am… Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Cor 15:9-11). That was the apostle Paul.

“Christian jealousy,” zeal for Christ, seeks to honor and glorify the Lord for all that he is and gives and does. Rather than being a body divided against itself, we are united by a common message and a common Lord. Jesus himself said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40). In fact, when God took from the Spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the 70 elders, it didn’t at all diminish the gift of the Spirit that Moses had. Rather, it was multiplied 70 fold. Just like lighting candles with a match doesn’t diminish the flame, but makes it grow brighter and stronger.

I don’t own the gospel, neither do you. It’s God’s powerful message which we get the distinct honor and privilege of sharing! And you know what’s really amazing? When we seek to honor God more and more every day with “Christian jealousy,” he heaps honor right back on us. Listen to how God honors those who seek to honor him: “Anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose their reward” (Mk 9:41). And, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isa 52:7).

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True Greatness (September 23, 2018)

September 24, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

True Greatness

Mark 9:30-37

Think of someone that you know personally, whom you would consider great. They could be a great friend, a great mentor, a great teacher or leader. Try to identify at least one person whom you would consider great. Have you thought of someone? Then consider: What is it that made them great? How have they impacted your life in a positive way? Keep those thoughts in mind as we listen to how Jesus says we should measure greatness.

Many of his followers would agree, Jesus was doing great things. It was probably the miracles they heard about first – how he provided food for a great crowd on two separate occasions, how he healed the sick, the lame and the dying, how he even had authority over the wind and the waves! This Jesus could do great and wonderful things! And as people stayed with him, followed him, perhaps hoping to see what great wonders he would perform next, they inevitably heard his great and profound teachings. Teachings that often challenged the natural way of thinking about topics such as, who is my neighbor, how many times should I forgive, and what does it really mean to obey the law of God. His closest followers, the twelve disciples, even got deeper insight into just who Jesus was so that they believed and confessed a great thing about Jesus: that he was the Christ, the promised Messiah. And how great Jesus revealed himself to be, as he lifted the veil and revealed his full glory to three of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, when he was transfigured before them.

Amazingly, God did not reserved these great things only for himself, he allowed his disciples to do many great things as well. They were the ones who got to carry Christ’s message to the people. They were sent out two by two, and possibly on other occasions, bearing Christ’s authority so that they could proclaim the peace of God, saying, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk 10:9). They also were enabled to do great miracles – healing the sick and casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

But, suddenly, they weren’t able to do such great things. It actually happened just before the section of the gospel that we read today. It was while Jesus revealed his glory to Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration, the rest of the disciples tried and failed to cast a demon out of a young boy. And Jesus actually scolds the disciples who weren’t able to do this great thing. He said, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mk 9:19).

When the disciples later asked Jesus why they couldn’t drive this demon out, he answered, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk 9:28-29). This, along with what comes next reveals the underlying issue of why these disciples were no longer able to do such great things. When they left that place and were walking along the road, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. I’m sure it began when Peter, James and John began to describe what they saw when Jesus went up the mountain with them. “His clothes were dazzling white, brighter than lightning! Oh, y’all should have seen it!” “Well, why do you guys always get to go? Why didn’t Jesus take us?!” “Well, we’ve been with Jesus longer, maybe he thinks that we are farther along in discipleship.” “No way! John, I’m much more experienced than you! You’re too young.” “Yeah, and I’m not as outspoken as you, Peter!” “But when Jesus asks a question and we are all nervous about answering, aren’t I the one who steps up for all of us?” And so, they were arguing over who was greatest among them by what they were doing. And I think that’s why the disciples weren’t able to cast out the demon. Somewhere in their ministry their initial humility over why Jesus would choose them was lost. Their reverent awe over what Jesus could do through them turned into selfish ambition over who could do the greatest things. “You are thinking only of yourselves,” Jesus was saying. “This one comes out by prayer – prayer to the real source of such great things.”

It’s so easy for us to fall into that very same trap. We want to use our gifts to do ministry, help at church, and reach out to those who have not yet heard about Jesus. And it feels good! It feels amazing when God uses your gifts and talents in service to the gospel. And we want to do it again! Serve God once again saying, “Guess what, God, I’ve got more to offer! Check this out!” Yet somewhere along the way our motivation gets skewed. We hear compliments and praise, or see results from the work that we do – which may have started with the best of intentions, but then it goes to our heads and we forget to give God the glory. As humility turns to ego, as motivation changes, so does our direction. Although it started with the excitement of serving God, it soon becomes all about serving myself. And soon, we are left just like the disciples, arguing over who is greater and so wrapped up in our own deeds that we completely miss what Jesus was trying to say as we walked down that path.

What was Jesus trying to say? What did Jesus say to the disciples as they were walking down the road? I read it, earlier in the service. Do you remember? It almost seems like a random thought inserted for no reason because in two verses Jesus made his statement, the disciples didn’t understand it, and so they dropped it to get back to arguing about how great each one of them were. But they were so sidetracked that they completely missed the beautiful Gospel revealing why it is Jesus who is truly great. Listen again. He said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mk 9:31). It certainly didn’t sound very glamorous or powerful. Being killed certainly didn’t sound very great. But as the disciples argued about greatness, Jesus was giving them the key to true greatness. The key to greatness, which he spelled out plainly, is: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).

Jesus walked the path of a servant deliberately, methodically, not turning to the right or to the left for personal honor or selfish ambition anywhere along the way. He walked the path of servitude from Pilate’s hall to Calvary, bearing the cross even for the one who just sentenced him to death. But the path didn’t start there. He walked the path, willingly, from the garden of Gethsemane to Herod’s courtyard even for the one who just betrayed him. He walked the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, for disciples who would rather argue about who was greatest rather than take Jesus’ words of suffering and death to heart and struggle as they seek understanding. He walked the path from the throne of heaven to the depths of hell, for people like you and me who often seek recognition in our actions rather than acting out of recognition of our Savior. That’s why he is the greatest. He is the one who was willing to serve even those who aren’t worthy of being served. His mission was all about you. And he was unwavering in that mission. Not faltering despite our weaknesses. Persistent in loving you at all costs. He is the greatest, because he didn’t do it for himself. Rather, he did anything it would take to hold you in his arms and welcome you into the Father’s house.

Such greatness you or I could never attain. But you don’t need to. In fact, your thought should never be, how can I be great. Christ didn’t walk his path thinking, “How can I be great?” He walked this path for you! That’s why James says, “If you harbor selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Ja 3:14-15). He goes on to say what is truly great, what is truly wise – and notice there is not even a hint of self-ambition in it. “Wisdom that comes from heaven” he says, “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (Ja 3:17). It’s completely focused on others just as Christ was completely focused on you. In fact, it’s completely focused on others out of love for what Christ has done. It’s concerned only with receiving Christ’s love and then imitating it. Is it hard to do this? Yes, of course. Are you always going to be recognized as great by those you do it for? No, but that’s not why you do it. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).

Do not concern yourself with greatness. Rather, think of everyone else as greater than yourselves – even those who may seem unworthy or lowly. Take, for instance, a little child. We typically think of little children as being fairly lowly. They follow where their parents go. They do what their parents ask them to do. They are followers. It seems they wouldn’t need any special attention beyond that of their parents’. But yet, the one who invests their time in a little one like this – the one who goes through the painstaking and repetitive ups and downs of raising a child physically, and especially spiritually, is truly great. That kind of person is great because they are motivated by and follow after Jesus’ own heart, serving even those who are lowly.

So, as you look back on your life, who was it that was truly great in your eyes? I’ll bet it was someone who was simply there for you – to celebrate the joys, bear the sorrows, and go through everything in between. I’ll bet it was someone who took a genuine interest in you and cared about even the little things that you had mentioned only in passing. Often, those who are great in our lives are the ones who went out of their way to care about you. They were not motivated by greatness but only by their Savior, who went out of his way to serve you to the fullest.

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Life’s Not Fair! (September 16, 2018)

September 18, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Life’s Not Fair!

1 Peter 4:12-19

“Hey! That’s not fair!” a child cries out in protest after landing on Park Place with three houses on it and losing all his money in one turn. “It’s not fair!” Serena Williams remarked after the umpire called the game costing her the most recent Grand Slam in women’s tennis. I’ll even bet every one of you can think of something from just this past week that was unfair, and not right! I can still hear my mom’s words echoing in my mind, “Life isn’t fair!” or my brothers’ more macho rendition of it, “Life’s tough!”

It’s true. Life isn’t fair. But not just in a general sense among all people. Jesus says right in the gospel reading for today, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). Many are caught off guard by this truth. Many seek a Savior who will give them an easy life or a quick ticket to success. After all, if we are children of God, it would make sense that God will look out for us and make our lives as easy as possible. But Peter says, “Dear friends, do NOT be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pt 4:12). Some come to Christ expecting to find an easy life, but they are surprised and frustrated once the reality of the world sets in. “This isn’t fair!” they say. Why does it seem everyone is against me as a Christian? To this, Peter says, “do not be surprised… as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pt 4:12).

Oddly enough, it’s this same Peter who not too long ago was surprised when Jesus predicted his own fiery ordeal. “[Jesus taught] them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed” (Mk 8:31). But Peter took him aside and began to rebuke Jesus (Mk 8:32), “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22). How often do we ourselves nod along to Jesus’ encouragement to deny self, take up your cross, and follow him (Mk 8:34), and yet throw our hands up in frustration when we are persecuted or spoken against as Christians. “Why are people so against Christianity?” we might question. “Why doesn’t God just give me some clear, surefire explanation I can use to just prove myself right and them wrong in every case?!”

Do not be surprised as though something strange were happening. Life just isn’t fair. They persecuted Jesus himself, “The way, the truth, and the life.” Don’t you think they will also persecute followers of the Truth? As I stand here, telling you not to be surprised, I have to admit that I was pretty surprised when I read page after page of persecutions throughout history. There was intense and gory persecution under the Roman emperor Nero. I’ll spare you the details. A decade later, Roman emperor Domitian demanded his subjects recognize him as “Lord and God.” During this time, the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos – the only apostle to die of natural causes. All the rest were martyred. Under emperor Trajan, regional governors could arrest, punish, and even kill Christians just for bearing the Christian name. This continued in the Roman empire for centuries until finally Diocletian ordered the destruction of all Christian churches, the dissolution of all congregations, confiscation of Christian property, and death to any Christian caught in public assembly. This type of persecution has continued in every century and in every part of the world. In the early 1600s, Japanese shoguns were convinced that the West was planting Christians only to soften up Japan for invasion. And it has only gotten worse. In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered by Muslim Turks. Vladimir Lenin with the Bolshevik revolution made hostility to Christianity a central feature of Soviet life which continued through Stalin. It continued into Communist China under Mao Zedong. And it is still seen as millions of Christians are captured and put to death in Islamic countries. It still shocks us and surprises us every time it happens. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be outraged at this. But understand that Jesus said it would happen.

Although it’s so prevalent and so unfair, although it may not seem worth it being Christians in such places, be sure to take a moment to look up. Look up from your cross and see your Savior, marching in front of you, carrying his own cross. I know life doesn’t seem fair for Christians. But it wasn’t fair for Christ either.

“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Pt 4:15). Yes, you will suffer for being a Christian. But it’s not the same kind of suffering as that of a criminal, evildoer, murderer or thief. Your suffering is different. It’s not a just punishment for things you’ve done wrong and what a blessing that is! Because, there may not be any murderers in the room, but I’m sure every one of us have cut down others with thoughts of hatred. Maybe you wouldn’t consider yourselves thieves, but how often do thoughts of greed sneak into our lives? You and I could go through every one of God’s commands and think of numerous ways in which we have broken those commands in thought, word, and deed. But do we suffer like the wicked lawbreakers we truly are? No. Because it was Christ numbered with the transgressors (Is 53:12) as he hung there between two criminals on the cross. It was Jesus who was treated unfairly, coming down from the highest place to suffer and die as the worst of the worst. It was Jesus who took on the punishment of sin so that all you would ever have to suffer was injustice. That’s why Peter says, “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Pt 4:16). Praise God that you have been called by the Gospel. Praise God that you have been baptized into his family. Praise God that he has justified you from all unrighteousness and clothed you with the holy robe of Christ! Praise God that when the world and when God sees you, it is through the lens of Christ!

And then remember, that as you suffer, Jesus knows what you go through. He doesn’t merely say, “Oh, it’s not really that bad.” He doesn’t minimize your suffering. He knows your pain is real because he knows your pain. He understands the rejections you face because he faced rejection. He understands how it feels when others make it hard on you because there were many who made it hard on him. He came and experienced your suffering. He went before you in your suffering. So, in the midst of your trials when you want to cry out that life isn’t fair, remember that you are merely following in his footsteps. It wasn’t fair for him first.

Then keep your eyes firmly fixed on him, because what happens next is truly amazing! Yes, Christ was insulted and mistreated. He was betrayed and crucified. But it wasn’t for nothing. Christ came with a purpose and that purpose did not end in suffering. He didn’t remain dead. He rose! And not only that, but “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:9-11). Just as you follow Christ and bear your crosses through life, keep following him. Follow him into the honor and glory that he once again has! He takes you there! “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12).

Life doesn’t seem fair for Christians. It really wasn’t fair for Christ who gave up all honor and glory to be mistreated right along with us. But when all is said and done, when Christ comes on the last day and sets things right – and he will set things right – then the statement still holds true: “Life isn’t fair.” But… not in the way you and I usually think about it.

The apostle Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rm 8:18). Just as Jesus’ story did not end in suffering, so yours also will not end in suffering. Praise God that you bear his name because it is the way into the eternal glories of heaven! The means by which everything is made right – in fact, not just made right. The glory that awaits is not even worth comparing to what we face now. And that puts reality into perspective. Just as growing older puts things into perspective. For a young child, a broken crayon can be the end of the world. How trivial, you might think. For a young adult, test scores and breakups are earth shattering news! What is it for you right now that really stresses you out? And how trivial will all these things be when you are 1 year into glory… 50 years into eternity… 10,000 years reigning with Christ?! The reality is, this is just the smallest sliver of the life you have ahead of you. Life definitely isn’t fair, but the scales will be strongly tipped in your favor in the end. Therefore, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed… If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Pt 4:14,16).

Prayer: Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You are my hope, just as I was in your despair on the cross. You are my sanity, just as I am your confusion; my joy, just as I am your sorrow. You are my healing, just as I am your pain. Indeed, you are my life, Lord Jesus, just as I was your death on the cross. Thank you for making life unfair in my favor. Amen.

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God knows when to say, “When” (September 9, 2018)

September 10, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

God knows when to say, “When”

Isaiah 35:4-7

“How long, O Lord?” I wonder how many times he sighed those words as he sat, unable to walk, at the temple gate called Beautiful. Life certainly didn’t look all that beautiful to him, sitting on the dusty ground, relying on strangers to eke out some semblance of livelihood. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?… How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” (Ps 13:1-2). I wonder how many times King David cried out those words throughout his difficult life even before he penned the words of Psalm 13. “How long, O Lord?” I wonder how many times the deaf and mute man pondered those words as he went through life with this social barrier.

How many times have you pondered those words, or cried them out in agony? It puts a picture into my mind of God pouring into your cup as a father would pour milk into a cup for a child, whispering, “Say when.” Only, what pours so freely is pain, disease, struggle, and gloom. “Enough already!” you cry out. “When!” But still God keeps pouring, until you are lost in the dreadful feeling of abandonment, in the appalling thought that God had turned his face away. Yet, Scripture says God won’t give you more than you can handle. But that threshold often seems long past, so we cry out, “How long, O Lord? When, Lord, when will you return?!”

It’s what Israel’s cry must have been in the time of Isaiah, the prophet. They had gone astray, turned away from God, and now it felt as if God was turning away and leaving them! In fact, in the chapters leading up to chapter 35, God actually announces woe. “Woe to Ephraim. Woe to David’s city. Woe to the obstinate nation, Israel. Woe to those who rely on Egypt.” Very soon they would be taken into captivity and would be crying out, “Why, Lord, would you forsake us? How long, O Lord?” Although to most it seems as if God was pouring an overflowing cup of wrath, yet to those who still listened to God’s prophets and had confidence in God’s promises, they also hear encouragement. “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come” (Is 35:4).

Look back on the times in your life when the pain or confusion or sorrow got so bad that you cried out to God with all your heart, “Where are you?” And he answered? … Nothing… Or so you thought. Our hearts naturally lean away from God as it is, with resistance deeper than consciousness and stubbornness we cannot begin to justify. So, in times of suffering or gut-punching disappointment, people can find the temptation irresistible to declare themselves rid of God and to resolve to move on without him – this God who does nothing when they need him most. Where is he?

Sometimes life is a mess because we are. And yet, we all also suffer in ways that aren’t particularly our fault. The first thing I want to tell you if you’re asking, “Where was God when I needed him?” is that it’s ok to say such things out loud. In fact, many of the prophets themselves asked this very question. You might as well bring to God what is really in you, not what you think is supposed to be in you, even if your questions has a serrated edge: “God, where are you?!” What we’re always needing to get down to, when it comes to a deep relationship with God, is the real me talking to the real You. Not me as an actor on stage talking to a god of my own distorted invention. Let God be God, and you be you.

So bring yourself and your tear-stained questions to God. “How long, O Lord?” And listen to him answer, “’I know the plans I have for you.’ Declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jer 29:11). What are the plans? We are dying to know. So, the verse goes on: “When you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you” (Jer 29:13-14). That’s the plan. It’s often in the dark times that we seek God with a fervent passion that we could never muster in the daylight. It’s in those times that we realize that what we really need. It’s God.

Therefore, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, … he will come to save you” (Is 35:4). And at precisely the right time, God indeed came. “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal 4:4). Our one great need – our need as sinners – is to have peace with God. Therefore, the last thing we really need from the God who is there – the very last thing – is to have a sweet and pleasant life that never confronts us with our own true condition. God answered our question of “How long” at exactly the right time. And he answered it with a crucifixion. Not yours. Not mine – although we certainly deserve it. But his own Son’s. On the cross, we witness the greatest miracle in the Bible, the miracle of restraint – when the Father sat on his own hands, doing nothing at all. Because God, who exists in sublime independence, chose to enter a relationship with us even though it would cost him everything and us nothing. So, he did nothing, even when his own beloved Son cried out humanity’s own question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). He did nothing. No miracle, no answer, no help. Because, you see, he also loved you.

Just as Isaiah prophesied over 700 years before it happened, your God did come. He came as the answer to humanity’s greatest need – sending his own Son to endure far more than you and I will ever have to. All because he wanted a loving relationship with you. However, just because God came and took care of your greatest need, doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen again. We already talked about reasons why God allows trouble into our lives. Often to bring us closer to him. And although we may still cry out, “How long, O Lord?” or “Why have you forsaken me?” your motivation is completely different. Because you know that he never abandons you, and never acts out of anger, disappointment, or rage. But all things work together. Even in troubled times, God promises to do great things. And so we ask, with a sincere heart, “Why, Lord, have you allowed this to happen? What great thing will you work from it?”

Always the master teacher, Jesus often uses opportunities to meet a physical need also to teach a lesson about spiritual need. Having heard of Jesus and the great things he had done elsewhere, a crowd of people brought to Jesus a deaf man who could hardly talk. Knowing the man’s need, Jesus didn’t simply speak a word of healing – he wouldn’t have heard it. Instead, Jesus took him away from the crowd, away from the distractions. Jesus then put his fingers into the man’s ears and touched his tongue. His actions touched deep. “I know your need” Jesus was communicating. Then he looked up to heaven – the source of all great things – and said, “Ephphatha!” which means, “Be opened!” At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly (Mk 7:31-35).

In much the same manner, after Jesus had ascended into heaven, Peter and John addressed a need that was deeper than just physical. A lame man sat at the temple gate where he begged for money every day. “Look at us!” (Ac 3:4) Peter called out. “Silver or gold we do not have… but we do have something better” (Ac 3:6). “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Ac 3:6). And although the ability to walk was far better than just some money to get through another day, don’t miss the important words that Peter used. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” This gift comes to you not from us – two mere men – but from Jesus who is the Christ! This man obviously understood who did this great thing, because rather than running through the city streets praising Peter and John, he went into the temple courts, “walking and jumping, and praising God” (Ac 3:8).

In both of these instances, a physical ailment was turned into physical joy! And because there had first been the dark time in their lives, their joy was multiplied! They told everyone they could! When the people saw the man who used to sit and beg at the temple gate, they were filled with wonder and amazement! The people who saw the deaf man healed couldn’t help but talk about it with overwhelming amazement! “He has done everything well! He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Ac 3:37).

And how vivid of a picture do these physical healings paint of the spiritual healing that Jesus has worked and continues to work every day. It is Jesus Christ of Nazareth who gives a hand up to those who are not just lame, but dead in sin. And as he works through the Word and melts our hard hearts he proclaims, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” to our hearts and minds so that we can understand his Word, understand the sacrifice of his Son for our sins, even understand that the hardships we face in life are by no means signs of the Lord’s abandonment, but in time – maybe not until the last day – will serve as evidence that “He has done everything well” (Mk 7:37). It’s what Isaiah has been saying all along. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Is 35:5-6). Their great need, turned into great praise for God!

It’s a marvel to see that sometimes God gives troubles to put his goodness into perspective. I realize that it seems God has given you more than you can handle, that it seems like far too much for you to take… yet here you are. Here sits the lame man. Here stands the deaf man. The miracle is that people who have suffered the most are often the ones singing the loudest at Christmas, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Their hearts are racing and their mouths shout for joy! Not because God’s peace and mercy are supposed to be in them, but because they are. Theirs is a heart-pounding intimacy with God, of a kind and a strength never dreamed of by people who have never known pain. There is a depth to these people, not in spite of the things he has allowed into their lives – he doesn’t do it lightly – but because of them. He’s on his way for you too. So “be strong, do not fear; your God will come” (Is 35:4). He knows when to say “When.”

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Authentic Faith (September 2, 2018)

September 10, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Authentic Faith

James 1:17-27

I hear from time to time, people worrying about their faith. “I’m not sure if I have enough faith.” “I’m worried my faith is weak.” “How do I strengthen my faith.” Often they start questioning themselves when they see how someone else has taken a difficulty right in stride, or another person is just so active in the church and passionate about what they do. They look at these other people and then see themselves. Am I not doing enough? Am I not faithful enough? How do I grow in my faith? How do I have a deep, authentic faith? And as we worry about our faith, it becomes very natural to worry about how that faith displays itself and how others might perceive our faith. What can I do to show that my faith is authentic? What can I do to grow my faith?

But I think before we discuss what it takes to have authentic faith, we have to look at something else first. We have to learn from our authentic Savior. John chapter 6 really marked a turning point for Jesus. Of course, Jesus always had the same mission, same intention, same march to the cross, but John 6 marks the moment when he had to deny his own popularity, his honor, and the glory that he could have so easily had here on earth. Yes, he gave up heavenly glory already when he became man, but this is the point in his ministry where people started to turn away from him and actively spoke against him to be rid of him. Jesus remained true to his mission. True to the plan of salvation. Jesus was not running for office; he was heading for the cross to pay for the sins of all. He was not raising an army; he was inviting people to repent and believe in him. The people were expecting all of those great things. He could have easily done them, reaped the benefits, and spared himself a lot of torment, but that’s not why he came. An earthly ruler was not why God came. An earthly ruler would simply bear the appearance of deliverance, but in reality, would do nothing for those he came to save.

As Christ was an authentic Savior, doing what had to be done, so he calls you and I to be authentic followers. God calls for the same humble obedience from us. Not to put up a front. Not that we listen to the word, go through the motions, and appear very religious, without letting the word penetrate deep down to the heart. God says, “look intently into the perfect law.” Study it. Examine it. Listen to it and learn from it. When we keep the law just for the sake of keeping the law, it shows that we don’t really understand the law. And, we become like the Pharisees who kept the law not to give God honor and glory, but to honor and glorify themselves. In fact, they even became like the law police – not only upholding God’s law, but adding many of their own, even elevating those laws above God’s laws. The things we do don’t earn us any kind of righteousness, or status before God. And most importantly, we don’t grow in faith because of our actions. Actions do not precede faith. Jesus calls out such inauthentic faith when he says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Mk 7:6-7).

The fact is, if you were to look into the law and place your name behind each of God’s commands, saying that you have kept it perfectly… well, we wouldn’t look so good. We can’t uphold God’s law. We don’t love him perfectly above all things. We don’t love others more than ourselves. We bicker, we argue, we complain and do so much more. In fact, when I look intently into the law I find a very ugly picture of myself. I realize that I have not been able to keep even one command. The law condemns not only sinful actions, but also sinful thoughts. Disobedience comes not from the lips or the hands but it starts in the heart. In the law, when I look for myself, I see only moral filth and evil that is so prevalent.

So forget yourselves! If you are concerned about strong or weak faith, or growing in your faith, forget yourselves. Don’t look intently into the law to find yourself or your faith. Your name is never going to be signed under any of the commands in God’s law because you and I cannot keep his commands. It’s Jesus. Only Jesus can keep the law of God. Only he proved faithful. He loved God above all else, not considering equality with God something to be used to his own advantage (Php 2:6). He loved you and everyone else above himself – not coming to be served as a king, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28). He’s the only one who did this perfectly. The only one about whom God can say, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17).

Do you know why it’s called the perfect law here? Perfected would actually be a little better. The Greek wording actually says, “whoever stoops down to examine the completed law that gives freedom… they will be blessed what they do” (Ja 1:25). It’s the same Greek word that is used when Jesus cried out on the cross “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).  Jesus kept God’s law perfectly, completed and fulfilled the law at every point. He kept it in your place all the way to his death so that you could have freedom through this “perfected” or “completed” law. Now, looking intently into the “completed” law – the law that was upheld by Jesus – see his name in place of yours after every one of God’s commands. See a beautiful reflection of your Savior. Forget yourself and see his name signed at each and every point of the law. If I want to see anything good in the law I must not see myself. I must see Jesus. In the law completed by Jesus I have freedom from inauthentic actions. I have the freedom to serve God with a true heart.

Actions always follow faith. Not the other way around. Actions that flow from an empty heart are really not pleasing actions at all. James paints a picture of what that might look like. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (Ja 1:26). It’s a person who worships regularly, hearing God’s Word and singing praises to him, yet soon after is right back to letting his tongue run loose. It’s someone who is so passionate about their own ideas that they don’t take the time to listen to others. It’s someone whose patience is running thin and quickly snaps back without a hint of grace or kindness. It happens after church, in meetings when we are quick to speak against someone who’s opinion is not our own. It’s as if we look deeply into a picture of the love and kindness God has showered upon us, but it doesn’t sink in so that we forget to show that same love when we step out of worship. In that case we become like the unmerciful servant who was forgiven a large debt by his master, but then didn’t go and do likewise when he found a fellow servant owing him money.

God says, “look intently into the perfect law.” See the reflection of Jesus in it. Study it. Examine it. Listen to it and learn from it. “Because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas 1:20). Because of Jesus taking my place under the law. Because he was patient with me – quick to listen to my prayer of repentance, slow to speak a word of judgment and slow to become angry with me, I am reborn. I am reborn through water and the word of truth so that I can be a firstfruit offering to him! Since he was patient with me, I can be patient to others. Since he was merciful to me, I can be merciful and compassionate toward others. That’s the evidence of a deep faith. These are actions that follow an authentic faith. It’s a faith that reflects Christ in every action.

That’s finally why James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (Ja 1:17). A true faith is nothing more than a channel for God’s gifts. It is his good and perfect gift of faithfulness to you that carries you through the ups and downs of life. It is his good and perfect gift of loving kindness that flows through you and allows you to be loving and kind to others. And he never changes. He is always the same. That’s why you have authentic faith when it’s rooted in him. Realize this, faith didn’t die for you. Faith didn’t take away your sins or come to be your savior. Faith did nothing but connect you to God’s blessings. It’s Jesus who died for you. He took away your sins and came to be your Savior. The object of your faith is what matters. And the object of your faith, your God and Savior is faithful.

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Consider Your Conviction (August 26, 2018)

August 27, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Consider Your Conviction

John 6:60-69

It’s sad to say that sometimes words can so offend us at their first utterance that we don’t even take the time to wrestle with them and consider the important truth that they hold. How many of you have blown up when your husband or wife thoughtfully critiqued your work out of love? How many of you have stubbornly refused kind advice from someone else simply because it wasn’t your idea? We do this all the time. Rather than putting in the time to thoughtfully process an idea, we fire off a reaction. Then we are left with either shamefully admitting our wrong, or stubbornly living with the consequences.

The followers of Jesus had already formed a conviction after hearing his discourse on the Bread of Life. “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). But Jesus asked them to reconsider their conviction. Jesus asked, “Does this offend you?” (Jn 6:61). Does my discussion ensnare you and cause you to fall into a spiritual death trap? Does my encouragement that you eat and drink of me – believe in me whole heartedly – so greatly confound you that it is leading you to abandon me in unbelief? Are you so offended by my words that you can’t catch on to the meaning intertwined with them to believe in me wholeheartedly?

What is it about Jesus’ words that cause offense? What things does he tell us that leave us saying, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). For the Jews that Jesus was addressing, he was telling them, that unless they believe in him, they are not God’s children – they do not have eternal life! And this was shocking to the Jews. “Weh… We are children of Abraham! Moses is our prophet” they would retort! But Jesus is telling them that they aren’t simply God’s children by name. They aren’t born into the family of believers. Whoever believes in Jesus is a child of God. Whoever continues to follow Jesus is a child of God. That person has eternal life, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. But leaving Jesus, who came down from heaven, in favor of the prophet Moses, who pointed to Jesus, would be leaving God’s family.

I think the offense for us comes when Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Actively follow me. Deny yourself, your work, a little time while on vacation, and be followers of me! You aren’t believers simply because you bear the name Christian. You aren’t children of God simply because you hold membership at a Christian church. Are you actively following Jesus? Are you taking time to mull over his words and believe what they say? Because Jesus has been quite clear in his discussion with these Jews – which we’ve been talking about for 4 weeks now – Jesus is very clear that spiritual food is more important than physical food. He’s been clear that one who truly grasps the complete corruption of his own sinfulness will also devour the gospel and yearn for the means of grace. The offense comes when Jesus tells you flat out, “You need help. You need drastic help. This is not the life I intended you to have. This sinfulness is appalling. And you know, that sin is a real problem in my eyes. It separates you from me.”

But don’t stop listening! Don’t let these words offend you to the point that you stop listening. I didn’t gather our membership to chastise you. I want you here because what Jesus does next is truly shocking! Jesus says, despite your sinfulness, I still love you. In fact, I love you so much that I can’t stand being separated from you. So, Jesus came down from heaven – yes, down from the place where he had all authority, honor, glory, and power. And I’m not saying he came down in the sense that heaven is up there and we are down here. No, he came down to our level. He humbled himself. Became flesh and blood like you and me. And then, he traded places with you and me. You maybe know the account of Jesus standing trial before Pilate. And in a last-ditch effort to set Jesus free – because Pilate knew he was innocent – he asked the crowd, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas [a notorious criminal], or Jesus who is called the Christ?” (Mt 27:17). You are Barabbas. I am Barabbas. Notorious sinners that were set free because Jesus took our place. He died in your place, gave up his flesh and blood so that you could live eternally! It’s an offensive judgment when the crowd chanted that Jesus be crucified and Barabbas set free. It’s a shocking act of grace and mercy when God sets you free and gives up his own Son because he couldn’t bear losing you.

This powerful act of love motivates our every thought and action afterward. Yes, there will be more offensive teachings that you encounter as you grow in your walk of faith. The fact that Jesus says, “I am THE way” (Jn 14:6) – the only way – could cause offense to someone who finds value in a variety of dogmas and doesn’t want to be nailed down to a “religion” – as they state it negatively. That Jesus was not just a mere man, but that he was also true God is mind bending, but necessary for your salvation. That I cannot choose to believe the words of God because I am “dead in sin” and “blind,” even “hostile to God” as the Bible explains. But yet, God gives his Word and messengers to proclaim it. And these words that Jesus speaks are “full of the Spirit and life” (Jn 6:63), so that by a miracle of the Holy Spirit you can say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). This is hard to make sense of. This is hard to take in. But because God is patient with me, I’m going to patiently take the time to mull over these difficult words, let the Spirit do his work in opening up the Scriptures so that I can believe!

Patience is what Jesus is asking for. To those who were threatening to turn away because of this hard teaching, Jesus said, “What if you had proof?” “What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!” (Jn 6:62). We know he ascended into heaven. In fact, the disciples who patiently waited for that proof, even through the offensive betrayal, trial, and death of their Savior, witnessed him rise and ascend with their very eyes! And the rest could have too if they were patient with Jesus and remained with him as their salvation unfolded before their very eyes. Jesus calls for that same patient, steady, following from you and I as well! If there are things you don’t understand yet, stay with him. Stay in his Word and connected to his sacraments, because as the disciples saw Jesus ascend into heaven, one day you will see him, coming on the clouds of heaven with the trumpet call of God!

Don’t you see? God has lavished his grace on you by sending his Son so that you go free. He poured out his love to you in his Word and brought you to believe that Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. He has “commanded his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Ps 91:11) so that “he who began a good work in you” – dying for you and bringing you to faith “will carry it on to completion” (Php 1:6). You are here today because God has made you a disciple and equipped you to continue in that faith. Just as he taught, trained, and equipped the twelve disciples even up to this moment. It was a difficult teaching for them too to understand. And as people are grumbling, complaining, and turning away, he asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (Jn 6:67).

With this question, Jesus was urging them to consider their conviction – evaluate their reasons for following him. Did they follow him because of his miracles and they wanted more? Did they follow his because he told them what their ears wanted to hear? Did they follow him because all his Words were crystal clear and easy to understand? They weren’t always. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (Jn 6:67). Will you turn back and no longer follow like the rest of the crowd? Or is there something deeper you believe me to be?

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). What else is there? What else is there that gives what you have to offer Lord? It almost sounds as if he’s saying, “Lord, don’t push us away. “We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69). You give life like no one else can! The financial security I earn from work sure helps me sleep at night. The love showered upon me by family and friends makes my heart race. The peace and relaxation I find while away on vacation sooths my soul. But all of this can be lost in a moment. Stresses of work may follow and disrupt my relaxation. Relationships are only in this life – and even then can be broken or grow cold. Financial stability can be disrupted with just one unexpected disaster. But your love…. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm 8:36-39).

Nothing can take you from Jesus your Savior. But he does not enslave you like mindless robots. He gives you the chance to consider your conviction. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (Jn 6:67). Each and every time your faith is challenged. Each and every time someone disagrees with what you believe, and you verbalize just what it is you believe, God uses that opportunity to strengthen you. His Spirit living in you answers with a resounding, “NO! You have the words of eternal life.” Just as this confession would strengthen the disciples and carry them even through the bleak confusion of the death of Jesus, so also your conviction of salvation in Jesus, guided by the Father and strengthened by the Spirit, will carry you through life. “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8).

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My Savior Moves Me (August 19, 2018)

August 27, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

My Savior Moves Me

John 6:51-58

The Jews of Jesus’ day wanted an earthly Savior who could provide for them like Moses did with the manna. We’ve been circling around this central theme for several weeks now, and Jesus keeps circling back to it in his discussion about the Bread of Life. But there was a point that they just weren’t getting. There was a need that they had that they just didn’t realize. They were unholy and needed a spiritual Savior. They thought they had it all taken care of through the sacrifices at the temple, their tithes and offerings, and the way they lived their lives. With all of these actions they convinced themselves that they could remove their guilt, pay for their sins, and actually feel good about themselves. And so, they didn’t really feel they needed what Jesus was trying to give them. Sure, they had a use for him as an earthly provider, but they didn’t feel they needed much help with the spiritual side of things.

The problem was, they didn’t realize just how sinful they really were – how deep the corruption of sin really went. And at times I think we struggle with the same disconnect. Ask yourself, “How deep do my sins go? How wicked am I really?” And now consider, what kind of a Savior do I need? do I need a Savior to guide my life and help me make the right choices? Yeah. Do I need a Savior to make up for or pay for the wrong things I’ve done in life? Yes, most definitely. But it goes far deeper even than that. Far deeper. You and I are sinful to the core. The Bible says, “nothing good lives in me” (Rm 7:18), it says, “the sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rm 8:7). In fact, the apostle Paul had to admit, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Rm 7:19). I’m not just smudged, dirty, or in need of a little repair. No, I am sinful to the core. There’s no fixing me. I’m completely broken, defective, hopelessly lost! A creation of God that cannot praise him or give him glory is like a clock that cannot tell time, a pen that doesn’t write, or a stove that cannot heat up food. It’s completely useless. I deserve to be thrown away, destroyed, eternally condemned. And not just me, but every human being who ever lived since the time of Adam. Again, the apostle Paul cries out what also must be our confession, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me for this body of death?” (Rm 7:24).

God could have just ended it all, you know. His perfect creation was utterly and completely ruined. He could have ended it the moment it all happened with Adam and Eve. God knew that every person after them would share the same inherent defect. In fact, he did end it during Noah’s time. God knew that if he did not drastically intervene at that point that there would be no one left on earth who awaited the Savior. In fact, the promise of the Savior, very gospel itself, would have been lost if he did not intervene at the time of Noah. God could end it each and every day for me and for you because each and every day I prove again and again that the corruption of sin is still there. Each and every day I prove to God that I deserve to be eternally condemned – handed over to the destructive fires of hell.

“The soul that sins is the one that will die” (Eze 18:20), declares the Lord. That truth stares you in the face each and every day. Consider the holiness of God without a dismissive, “Yeah, but he forgives” and you will instantly melt before the stern Word of the Lord, cowering in fearful sinfulness. But God was merciful! Not only is he infinitely more holy than we realize, but every moment he does not just end us, we instantly realize that he is also infinitely more loving than you or I could ever know. Out of love he allowed Adam and Eve to live out their days trusting in the promise that a Savior would somehow be able to fix what they destroyed. In love he preserved Noah and his family not just from the waters of the flood, but from the corruption that would have inevitably consumed his family line and the promise they clung to if left unchecked. In love he allows you and me to go on living each and every day so that you can know him, believe in him, and be covered by the perfect life of your Savior.

God was merciful to us and sent his own Son. He sent Jesus not to guide us and show us how to live a perfect life – we could never do that – but to be our perfect life. Not merely to pay the price of the wrongs we commit – though we certainly need that. But the corruption of sin is far deeper than just our thoughts, words, and actions. Jesus came to fundamentally change us. He took the place of each one of us on the scrap heap. Took into himself the sins we commit and the inherent sinfulness which corrupts us completely, and he was destroyed by God in our place. “he was pierced for [y]our transgression, he was crushed for [y]our iniquities” (Is 53:5). And this not just in some figurative or symbolic way. There is a shocking reality to sin. There is real carnal torment for sin. Hell is real. Hell is seen in the death of Jesus who gave up his flesh and blood for you. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46), he cried out as he became your sin, and was condemned in your place. All so that you and I can now marvel, “My God, My God, why have you not forsaken me?” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” Jesus said. “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). God has not forsaken you and me because Jesus gave up his very flesh and blood, to fix what we have broken and to preserve you for life everlasting.

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus is telling us in these verses that saving faith is so much more than just knowing about Jesus. It is so much more than just a book, or a person in distant history, or feeling spiritual. Real flesh was broken because of sin, real blood was shed for your salvation. And to get this point across to the Jews, Jesus said it in a way that would just grate on the ears of any Israelite – even many of us today. He said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). All their lives Jews were taught to abstain from blood. They had procedures to carefully remove all blood from the food that they ate, and now Jesus is telling them to “drink my blood.” It was repulsive to them. Yet Jesus tells them, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53).

I have to take a moment, however, to clear up a common misconception regarding these verses. These verses are not talking about the Lord’s Supper; and there’s several reasons why. First, here, Jesus uses different terms than he does for the Lord’s Supper. Here, Jesus talks about his “flesh” and “blood,” but for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus uses the terms “body” and “blood.” Second, it is very unlikely that Jesus would command the sacramental eating of his body and blood before he had instituted his Holy Supper. Third, nowhere does Scripture say that the sacramental eating and drinking of Jesus’ body and blood are an absolute requirement to gain life. Yet, in this section here, he makes it clear that eating and drinking in this way is required. Finally, Jesus guarantees that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54). It’s the same guarantee as in other places of scripture that talk about believing in Jesus (Mk 16:16; Jn 3:16). Yet Scripture does not issue such a guarantee to everyone who partakes of his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. In fact, a person may eat and drink the sacrament unworthily and thus drink judgment on himself (1 Cor 11:29). And so, it is a spiritual eating and drinking that Jesus is encouraging here. In fact, to emphasize his point, he uses a word for “eat” that is often used to describe animals feeding. If you have a dog, you know how voraciously they can gobble up their food the moment you put their bowl on the floor. Jesus wants us to take him in and believe his words with the same intensity as an animal enthusiastically intent upon its food.

Go to Calvary and see the gut-wrenching sacrifice for sin on the cross. God is serious about sin. Then go to the empty tomb with butterflies in your stomach! God is serious about saving you. You may see a long list of sins in front of your eyes. As you look at your past, present, and even into the future you see the sins you have committed and the sins you will likely commit again. But, according to the cross of Christ, that list of sins isn’t on you anymore. No, when God looks at you through the cross, he sees perfection. He sees you as if you have never committed a sin in your life, never given into temptation, never been corrupted by sin in the first place. And it’s true! Because that is what you are through Christ. That is what he has made you. Holy and perfect in God’s sight, beloved sons and daughters. That’s what Jesus says you are to believe because of the cross. Stand at Calvary and see your sinfulness destroyed there. Stand at the empty tomb and drink in the sight. Take it into your inmost being. As surely as Jesus rose from the dead, so too a new creation rises within you – like the radiant butterfly arises from the husk of its former self. Your sins have been destroyed. You live a new life now!

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Check the Ingredients (August 12, 2018)

August 13, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Check the Ingredients

John 6:41-51

How many of you check food labels before you buy or eat certain foods? I definitely don’t study the label, but at least a glance here and there. Sometimes a little more in depth. But even if you don’t read labels, you certainly pay attention to the foods you eat. You probably try to eat a balanced variety of healthy foods. You know certain foods you need to avoid because they are unhealthy, you have allergies or some other health issues. And you do this, because you know that the foods you eat affect you. Some help you feel better and maintain your health. Others can really harm you.

And if that’s true for the physical food that you eat, do you think it’s also true for the spiritual food you eat? You can really think of it in terms of healthy spiritual food and spiritual junk food. I know you care a lot about the church you choose to attend – not just because of the people there or the programs, but because you believe this church accurately teaches and preaches what God’s Word says. But what about beyond these walls? Never before have people had such a buffet of spiritual foods accessible to them. Many churches livestream their services online. Many pastors and theologians write books. And in addition to all of that, there are countless ways in which anyone can immediately make their ideas about God and his Word public for your consumption.

Do you read the label on these things? When you pick up a book by a Christian author, do you find out who that author is and what kind of background they have so that you can read with a discerning mind? When you click on a YouTube video because you were curious about a particular biblical question, do you consider who it is you are watching and what kind of background they have? They could be feeding you a nutritious banquet from God’s Word, or they could be inadvertently feeding you a banquet that has been poisoned by false teaching. What you read and hear about God’s Word matters just as much for your soul as what foods you eat matters for your body.

Jesus is trying to explain to the Jews that the spiritual food they had been eating did not come directly from God. Rather, it had been dragged all across the dirt of Israel, been improperly prepared by hundreds of years of misuse by Israel’s priests and teachers, and then served dirty, undercooked, and poisoned to the unsuspecting Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus is warning them and encouraging them to check the ingredients of the spiritual food they have been eating. Because the Bread of Life is standing right in front of them, and if they don’t check the ingredients, they could miss out on healthy spiritual food and instead return to their spiritual junk food.

Jesus just revealed himself as the true bread from heaven – the spiritual food which truly comes directly from heaven. But the Jews refused to believe it. Instead, they grumbled about him. “They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven”?’” (Jn 6:42). Instead of pursuing the point to uncover the truth about his heavenly origins and miraculous birth – all of which has been prophesied – instead of seeking a fuller explanation from Jesus, they began to grumble about him. And their grumbling was meant to be caustic. It was meant to pollute his image so that people would instead turn to spiritual junk food. Their human reason couldn’t accept this amazing truth from the lips of Jesus. Although our reason is a gift from God, we have to understand that it has been influenced by sin, and therefore can lead us astray. If reason ever disagrees with what Jesus says, then trust Jesus. Take his words as they are and put reason in its proper place. There will be things we don’t understand. But faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1) because we take Jesus’ words as truth.

So, we have our human reason at times working against us, and these people that Jesus was talking to had something else working against them as well. They considered themselves to be spiritually well-fed by their scribes and teachers of the law, but they had been eating spiritual junk food. And since they filled up on spiritual junk food, they had no room for the pure bread of life. They were unwilling to reconsider the spiritual food they had been eating. Most Jews of his day had incorrectly learned from their spiritual leaders that God’s Word is filled with nothing but laws and regulations. They saw salvation as something they had to earn. Therefore, they learned to lean on their own works as their object of faith rather than on Jesus. And we sometimes fall into this same trap. We fill up on spiritual junk food without realizing it, we listen to this teacher and that teacher and form our beliefs based on what they say, but then we have no room for the pure Bread of Life. The Bible says to stand before God empty of your own good; let God fill you up with his love and forgiveness (Mt 5:5; Lk 1:53). Always save room for the pure Bread of Life. Always include the plain and simple Word of God in your spiritual diet.

Consider it this way. What happens when you don’t eat a healthy diet? What would happen if you didn’t care what you ate, how much you ate, how often you ate? You would probably end up harming your body with unhealthy habits and unhealthy foods. You would also dramatically decrease your life expectancy and quality of life. Yet too often, this is how people eat their spiritual food. They don’t consider how often they eat. They don’t consider the ingredients. They get it from any source they want. And when they find one that tastes good, no matter how healthy it is, they binge on all they can get! This is harmful. This is dangerous. And it has a bearing not just on your life now, but into eternity. I’m speaking primarily of videos that are so easy to find online. I’m talking about books and articles by Christian authors. Even choosing a church for something other than the fact that it teaches God’s Word purely and accurately falls under this category. And the scary thing is, once you start with a source of spiritual food that has even just traces of false teaching, you may begin to consume more and more without realizing the poison you are eating.

Be discerning of where you get your spiritual food from. Eat carefully. And I’m not saying you have to avoid all Christian books or online videos and articles, but always compare what they are telling you to what the Bible tells you. Judge carefully how they use Bible passages and apply them to make sure they are doing so correctly. And sometimes, what I find best if I’m searching a question is not to just search the question and read whatever articles pop up. But search for passages that relate to the question. Then I know that I am getting my answer straight from the source. Then I know my spiritual food is not tampered with or poisoned. The apostle Peter says, “Crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Pt 2:2). Anything other than pure spiritual food could be very harmful.

Jesus tells us exactly where to get this pure spiritual food. He says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die” (Jn 6:48-50). The food that you receive from Jesus, his words recorded in the Bible, are the purest form of spiritual food you can get. Check the ingredients! The Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:1, 4, 14). Make this source of spiritual food your primary source. It’s packed with all the right spiritual nutrition you need and no preservatives, additives, substitutions, or anything else that would be toxic or harmful. That’s why we always have readings directly from God’s Word in every worship service.

Jesus goes on to explain that learning from God’s Word leads to a correct understanding of Jesus and his work. If only the Jews would have gone straight to the source of God’s Word instead of allowing their priests and teachers of the law lead them astray. Jesus points out what their own prophets have said, “It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me” (Jn 6:45). Only people who eat pure spiritual food will understand and believe who Jesus is. The Father draws people to Jesus, to understand him correctly when they learn directly from his Word. The Jews had trouble believing Jesus because they thought they had known Jesus’ origins. But if they truly listened to God through his prophet John, they would know that Jesus’ origins stretch back long before he was born of Mary. But they couldn’t get over their own reasoning. They allowed their reason to trump God’s Word and so were misled by spiritual junk food.

“I am the living bread that come down from heaven” Jesus said, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51). Pure spiritual food is truly beneficial – for eternity and even now. Think of it this way: Eating healthily can increase your life expectancy, but you don’t just receive the benefit of it when you are advanced in years and living a little longer. No, eating healthily helps you feel better right now and gives you a better quality throughout your life. The same is true for eating healthy spiritual food. Yes, it prolongs your years and gives you life everlasting. But it also means something right now. It means you don’t have to keep searching for spiritual food because you have found it. It means you don’t have to wonder what is going to sustain you through times of need. It means you have a healthier outlook on life knowing that it’s all in God’s capable and loving hands. Ever since Jesus gave up his life for the life of the world, your biggest problem is solved, and all the rest are put into proper perspective. Salvation is yours. You don’t have to fret over your sins or past wrongs, just lay them at Jesus’ feet. You don’t have to stress over how you are going to remain in him, the Father will draw you to him. Feed on the pure Bread of Life by reading and studying his word, comparing everything else to his Word, and you will have a healthy spiritual life.

How much attention do you pay to the spiritual food that you eat? It matters just as much, actually, far more than the physical food that you eat. Choosing correct spiritual food means the difference between an eternity of regret and hunger for God’s grace, and living in his love, filled with his blessings each and every day. Check the ingredients of every source of spiritual food you eat. Not all bread is from heaven. Only pure bread is beneficial. Think of all the sources of your spiritual food. The Bible, your church, your friends and family, Christian books you read and videos or articles you find online when searching for answers. Now, reconsider each of those sources. Hold them up to God’s Word, because the Bible says, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God.” “Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me” (Jn 6:46, 45). Hold every source up to God’s Word. See if they are accurately proclaiming, teaching and feeding you God’s Word. And do this often. Some sources of spiritual food may be healthy on some points of the Bible, but toxic on other points. Continuously compare every source of spiritual food to God’s Word. Because only pure bread from heaven is beneficial.

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