Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

I want a DO-OVER!! (July 5, 2020)

July 5, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

I want a DO-OVER!!

Romans 5:12-15

To watch online: https://youtu.be/Ygx9iwP5kVI

 

“Do over!” A staple move in any child’s game – especially when playing with young children. There’s a lot at stake! The child makes a wrong move, or just simply doesn’t want to lose, and they call for a “do over.” It’s a chance to reverse the mistake. The ability to go back in time and fix what went wrong. But any adult knows that there is no such thing as “do overs” in real life. Once thought becomes action or a word is off the tongue, it’s out there. It can never be taken back. You can’t go back and erase it. At the very best you can spend a lot of time and energy trying to reverse the damage that has already been done. There are no “do overs” in real life.

I really wish Adam could have had just one “do over.” It sure would have fixed a whole lot that is wrong in the world. Ever since that one wrong move, the course of history has been one long and steady downward spiral. Adam was given the privilege of being the one from whom all others would be descended. He wasn’t only given all of creation, but God also made a beautiful garden especially for the crown of his creation. Along with all of this, God gave Adam one command: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:16-17). Why? Why, O God, did you have to give that command – that test? Was it your will that we would make a mistake and fall?

So many have asked that question. So many seek for understanding. And in part, I think we need to be reminded of our place and God’s. After chapters and chapters of Job questioning God for bringing such trials and calamity upon him, God fired back with a powerful monologue that didn’t really answer Job’s question, but reminded him of his place and his limited understanding of the grand scheme of things. “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3).

In part, we have to accept that we may not fully understand why God gave the command not to eat from that tree. But I think we can begin to have a discussion about it. Realize first the ratio of blessings to commands. God gave Adam dominion over all things. God gave Adam a beautiful garden. Even within that ONE command, God also said, “You are free to eat from ANY TREE in the garden; but you must not eat from [this one].” God was not selfish in dealing with his highest creature. Adam had a wide range of foods to pick from. The command to abstain from one tree was neither irritating nor burdensome.

But it goes far beyond that. All of Genesis 2 speaks of what God did to make his children happy, and this special tree was no exception. God never designed humans to be puppets or robots whom he regulates by pulling strings, pressing buttons, or limiting them in any way. By placing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, God was giving Adam the opportunity to obey God of his own free will. And this opportunity, this choice was so important in Adam’s spiritual life. You see, When God created Adam, he was in a state of created innocence. By giving Adam the command not to eat, God was offering him the opportunity to progress from created innocence to conscious holiness. God wanted his highest creature to be holy by choice, not just by accident. And this command was God’s way of allowing Adam to consciously grow in holiness every day! It was God’s way to build Adam up in trusting him to provide for every need. It was Adam’s way, essentially, to worship God! By making this choice, the experience would have produced a knowledge of good and evil similar to that which God himself has.

Sadly, man reversed God’s plan. God created man for life! Yet, quite irrationally, Adam chose death. And ever since that moment, the floodwaters of sin washed over the earth, never to recede. There is no going back to reverse this mistake. Even down to the present day, we are still suffering from and struggling with sin. We inherit it in much the same way that we inherit physical and emotional characteristics from our parents. We may not fully understand the functional details of sin’s transmission, but it’s effects are evident. The Bible says, “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rm 5:12). We see death. Everyone eventually dies. This death is evidence of our sinfulness.

But we don’t just have Adam to blame for our condition. Even as believers who are alive in faith, who know the will of God, and who know his commands, we still choose death just like Adam did. By God’s mercy and grace, he once again gives us the opportunity to grow in our spiritual life by choosing to live according to his will and rely completely on his strength to do so. Yet, even though he provides everything we need to walk with him again, we choose to go our own way. We stubbornly refuse to budge or forcefully push God away when he comes to help. We choose death. Don’t just blame Adam for your condition. Every one of us is also responsible for reversing God’s plan for us.

If only there were “do overs” in real life. If only we could go back to that moment just before the fall into sin and undo the wickedness that was done. But God’s plan didn’t include a “do over”. Lucky for us, because a “do over” would mean wiping us off the face of the earth and starting over. God’s plan did, however, include a complete reversal of all that went wrong. God reversed the fate of mankind. He did this, first, by providing the gift that would reverse the trespass. The Bible says, “the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Rom 5:15).

The gift is righteousness, and it’s for you. Just as you did not eat the fruit, yet you were condemned; so also you did not earn it, yet you are declared righteous! The disobedience of the first Adam ruined us, but the obedience of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, saves us. And when the Bible says, “how much more did God’s grace… overflow to the many” God means it! The gift does not merely free you from your sinfulness and bring you to a neutral state, leaving you to work out the rest. The gift makes you righteous and holy in God’s sight! Nor does the gift merely free you from death, but it entitles you to life! This is who God is! It is his natural work. Yes, he punishes sin. Not because he enjoys it, but because he would not be holy and good if he allowed sin. But this is his “foreign work.” His “natural work” is to show love and mercy, to forgive those who trust in him, and to shower you with blessings upon blessings!

God reversed the trespass with his gift, and he also reversed death by his life. Since God made you righteous and holy by the second Adam, Jesus Christ, there is no longer a sentence of death for you. By dying on the cross and defeating death, Jesus reversed the power that death holds over you. For although every one of us will still die one day, for those who die in Christ it has been made but a doorway to a new and better life where you are completely free from sin and death; where all the destroying effects of sin are completely reversed. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).

So in these ways, the first Adam was a “pattern of the one to come” (Rom 5:14). First it was his trespass that caused the rest of us to be condemned of our own inherited sinfulness, even though we did not eat of the forbidden tree. And in this way “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses” (Rom 5:14) and even far beyond the time of Moses. Yet Christ came in the flesh to be our “do over.” Not by wiping us off the face of the planet and starting over, but by taking on the full condemnation and punishment which we deserved. The Bible testifies to this gracious reversal: “Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:21-22).

A “do over?” God has given us something so much better. He has taken our reversal of his plan and reversed the fate of all mankind. He became sin for us so that we might become righteous (2 Cor 5:21). And not only does he promise this reversal of sin and death, but he shows us glimpses that the reversal has already taken place. First and foremost in the death and resurrection of Jesus – who is the firstborn from all the dead. But also in instances like we just read in the Gospel (Mt 9:18-26) where he healed the daughter of the synagogue official. Or when he raised Lazarus from the dead. Besides the resurrection of Christ, he didn’t have to give us these glimpses – these rays of hope – of what will one day become ours. But God wanted you to believe with absolute certainty that in him your fate is reversed. Your sins have been exchanged for righteousness in Christ, and death has become the door to eternal life.

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Extreme Makeover, Life edition (June 28, 2020)

June 28, 2020

Extreme Makeover, Life edition

Romans 5:6-11

https://youtu.be/3qSn6uWWPDM

 

A common trend among aging and sometimes struggling downtown areas of cities is to renovate and revitalize old buildings. I’m sure many of you have heard of a very successful case of this with the Silos and Magnolia Market up in Waco. This renovation project really helped jump start an aging district in Waco. There have been similar plans in the works to do the same kind of revitalization here in Temple. For at least a few years now, developers have had their eyes on a few iconic buildings in Temple; namely, the Santa Fe Depot, and the Hawn Hotel. One key factor in identifying good building candidates for renovation is that they have some merit, something that draws people to it, some unseen potential. Since Temple was established as a railroad town, the Santa Fe depot is a good pick. And the long history and iconic look of the Hawn Hotel make it another good candidate.

When God looked at the earth and saw that humankind needed to be revitalized and reconciled back to him, what kind of potential do you think he saw? Did we have qualities that would draw God to us – something he just couldn’t live without? Did we have any kind of merit of our own – any potential at all? Not even a hint. In just the first three verses you get a description of what exactly God saw in us. We were powerless. We were ungodly. And we were sinners. We were powerless, meaning, even if we wanted God to come and help us – which wasn’t at all the case – we couldn’t have done anything positive to bring that about. Which is a hard pill to swallow. We like to think that we have at least some endearing qualities, some ability to draw God to us. But we don’t. In fact, we were exactly the opposite of what God wanted. We were ungodly. We were rebellious enemies of God even to the point of resisting him. And so, in God’s eyes, we were nothing but sinners. Sinners not only in the sense of the outward evils we commit, but even down to our core. Nothing good lives in us by nature. God sees us on the basis of what is in our hearts – sinners.

Despite all this, God did something amazing. “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rm 5:6). The moment humankind fell into sin, God had a plan. You can read the first promise of his plan in Gen 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” We may think he took a long time in keeping that promise, but he did it at just the right time. In Galatians 4, we hear once again that this was all according to God’s timeline, not our own. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal 4:4).

God came down to meet us. We didn’t rise up to find him. God sent his Son, while we were still dead in our sins, to die in our place. And the apostle Paul gives us an example of what that was like from our own perspective. He says, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die” (Rm 5:7). What he is saying is that it is very unlikely and rare that a person would give up their life for another. A righteous person is referring to an upstanding citizen – someone who obeys the law and has never done anything wrong. A good person is referring to someone who is “beneficial.” Think of a person in a position of power and authority whose life can really be advantageous for the public good. Even in these cases, it is rare that someone would give up their life for them. Think about it in your own life. Would you give up your life for a family member? What about a stranger? Now what about an enemy? You were that ungodly, hostile enemy of God. Yet he died for you. This is the most vivid display of his love in action for you. Do you want to know if God really loves you? Look at what he has been willing to do for you! He died to reconcile you to him – to revitalize someone who was beyond help. All because he loves you. He didn’t demolish you like a dilapidated building and start fresh, he gave you new life, a new birth!

This proof of God’s love is also the foundation of your confidence in salvation. Paul uses an argument from the greater to the lesser. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rm 5:9). If God did not exercise his wrath against us when we deserved it – when we were powerless, ungodly sinners, will he now reject or condemn those on whom he has lavished his grace? Yet, as people who know that we deserve God’s punishment and who live in a world full of heartaches and disappointments, it is only natural that there are those times when we wonder whether God hasn’t decided to punish us after all. Being let down by fellow, sinful human beings is just what we are used to.

But God is not sinful, deceptively promising things he does not intend to do. Nor is he powerless like we are, making promises he is unable to keep. Look at how God describes his forgiveness and complete reconciliation in the Bible. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:11-12). “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12). “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Is 43:25). You can be confident that he will not discard or forget about you, because he paid such a high price for you! By God’s grace through Christ our natural status with him has now been altered. Now God regards us not just as former enemies, not just as friends, but as his own dear children through faith in Christ.

This is not just something to store away as confidence and hope for when you are facing the end of life and God’s judgment. This is something for your benefit even now! Have all your sins been atoned for? The resurrection proves it. There could not have been a resurrection if any sin still needed to be paid for. Therefore, can God now withhold any blessing from you? How can he, when his Son lives and reigns with you in heaven? So we BOAST in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, because we have now received reconciliation (Rm 5:11).

In these words there is so much concern about the real problems that Paul’s readers faced in their day-to-day lives. Especially persecution and being driven into hiding. So Paul points out that Christian hope brings reconciliation and life to the present. It’s not just for future relief and confidence, but meant to give you joy even now! Life has enough trouble even without having to struggle with guilt and worry about sinfulness. But you know that Christ has lifted a weight from your shoulders. He has done away with your sin. He has lifted the burden of guilt and made you a child not of this world, but of his heavenly kingdom. Nothing in life can change that. Nothing in life can diminish the value that God has given you.

It’s kind of like renovation projects that some buildings undergo. Where many see an old decrepit building that should be knocked down, some see potential, hidden value, and what the building could be! Once the building is renovated, it has added value and appeals to the masses. But we aren’t even like those old buildings. There wasn’t anything good in any of us. Nothing that would draw God to us. No diamond in the rough. Nevertheless, God proved the height and depth of his love when he sent his Son to die for you. This is value that no one can take away. If he values you enough to die for you, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give you all things?

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God considered them faithful (June 21, 2020)

June 21, 2020

God considered them faithful

1 Timothy 1:12-17

https://youtu.be/6DhwT9Ni-Hs

 

What do an exiled executioner, a sly swindler, and a pompous persecutor have in common? God considered them trustworthy and faithful! The three I’m referring to are Moses, the exiled executioner, Matthew, the sly swindler, and Paul, the pompous persecutor.

Really all three people highlighted in the readings today were at a low point in their lives. Or, at least, referring back to a low point in their lives. Moses was out in a wilderness area tending flocks because he had tried to deliver his people but failed. He killed an Egyptian to rescue one of his own, was found guilty, and threatened with death so he fled and hid. Matthew too was the exact opposite of the law abiding Pharisees of his day. He secretly swindled money from the people and could only find company with sinners. Paul, vehemently persecuted Christians, tore apart families, even obtained letters from the authorities to justify his work as he breathed out murderous threats against God’s people.

And what I find most fascinating is that the sections we read today is their own autobiographies. Can you imagine! The Holy Spirit is carrying these writers of Scripture along to pen the Word of God, and Moses is probably thinking, “Can we just skip the part where I murder the Egyptian and keep trying to refuse your call at the burning bush?” Or Matthew, “I don’t really have to explain where you called me from, do I?” Paul too, when he was known as Saul, his backstory is spelled out in great detail throughout Scripture. And he refers to it in several of his letters, here calling himself the “chief of sinners,” “the worst of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Do I have to write about all that? God says, “I don’t care what you think. This is the book of my mercy and love. Though you may have been an exiled executioner, a sly swindler, or a pompous persecutor, I made you something new. I considered you faithful.”

The reason I go into all of this is because haven’t you had the same thoughts too? And not just thoughts on their own, but thoughts based on truth. What is that sin that you can’t seem to shake? We all have one – at least one. The trap that Satan knows our sinful nature is prone to fall for. Are you merciless murderer, a debilitated drunkard, a sly swindler? Is it lust? Is it telling lies? Is it identity issues or that you’ve harmed someone else on purpose? It’s quite common for me to hear people say, “But pastor, you don’t know what I’ve done. You wouldn’t be saying such words of forgiveness if you knew what I’ve done.” I don’t care what you’ve done! Are you remorseful and burdened with quilt? Are you repentant and searching for mercy? Good! Then hear the words of Jesus, “You are forgiven.”

“But pastor, you don’t understand…” I don’t need to understand your side of it, because I understand God’s side of it. It doesn’t matter what you have done. Let me tell you about what Jesus has done for you. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Are you a sinner? … Me too. Jesus came to save you. He died on the cross to pay the punishment for every sin. So whatever it is you have done, whatever it is that is on your mind, bothering you, or you consider unforgiveable, I want you to think of it right now. You don’t have to tell me, unless you want to, unless it helps. Just hold it in your mind there for a moment. I agree with you, it deserves punishment. God agrees with you, it deserves punishment. Now see Jesus, punished by God on the cross for that particular sin. It’s not a pretty picture, I know. But it is the picture of God pouring out his grace upon you abundantly, in love. It is the picture of God’s glory and honor – that he came into the world for this very purpose! To save sinners. He did it because he loves you. All glory and honor be to God for taking our sins onto himself. As you come away from that image in your mind, come away renewed, refreshed, leaving whatever it was there on the cross.

Moses, Matthew, the apostle Paul are all right there with you. Paul says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy” (1 Timothy 1:13). I’ve known the details of Paul’s past from Scripture. One of the first times we hear about him is when he is holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. He took pride in what he thought was work for the Lord as he persecuted, tore apart, and broke up the Christian church wherever he could – making this is passion and his mission. Until Jesus came and changed his life – made him one of his own apostles to preach salvation through Christ to the Gentiles. Yet, I’m sure his past plagued him. In fact, he brings it up in several of his letters, “I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people” (Eph 3:8), and “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). This fact really came to life for me recently when I watched a movie about the Apostle Paul, and the persecution of Christians under Nero was graphically portrayed. The Christians were turning to Paul for help and direction – by now an old man in prison. And he was having flashbacks of having done the very same things against the people he now serves.

Yet, in all of this – even humbled and at times plagued by his past – Paul knew that it didn’t matter what he thought. It only mattered what God declared. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15). “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy… The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:13-14). That word, “abundantly,” refers to a vessel that has been filled and yet the pourer just keeps pouring. It’s running over. It’s spilling onto the table and flooding the floor beneath. You are that vessel, that cup. God pours out his grace abundantly along with the faith that clings to that grace for salvation. There’s no room left for your failures because you are filled and running over with God’s grace and love.

Even that part where Paul says, “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13), Paul is not making excuses. He is including himself among those to whom the Savior referred to from the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Forgive them. Who was Paul to question the Savior’s judgment? If Jesus considered him trustworthy and faithful for service, Paul was ready to serve! Who are you to question God’s judgment?

Are still you plagued by what you consider an unforgiveable past? Have you read about the people in the Bible? Have you read the backstory of even some of the most famous people in the Bible – Moses, Matthew, Paul? Even having come to faith they all still struggled with very real sins. That’s one of the most compelling points of the Bible is that God takes very real people – faults, flaws, and failures all included and spelled out – and calls them to serve him! In fact, their faults and failures make them even better missionaries to the sinners that Jesus came to save. They are real. They are relatable. “For that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience” (1 Tim 1:16).

When the Pharisees questioned Jesus’ acts of mercy, he told them to go and learn the Scriptures. See the difference between mercy and sacrifice. See that their claims of righteousness were nothing but mere whitewashed tombs – a denial and covering up of the death that lies beneath. Could these Pharisees and self-righteous people really be healthy when they are blind to mercy for their brothers, blind to the prophets, and blind to the Savior? Christ wanted different ministers than these. He wanted ministers who knew the mercy of God and would share the mercy of God. So, he turned to the sinner, Matthew, and called him from his life of sin to a life of ministry with those merciful words, “Follow me” (Mt 9:9).

He called Moses, who had already proven himself a failure at delivering God’s people from bondage, living as an exiled killer, fleeing from Pharaoh. And no wonder Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex 3:11). To which God responded, it doesn’t matter who you are. “I AM” (Ex 3:14). Thirteen times here God uses the first person pronoun. Can the point be any clearer? Your call is by my mercy, and the ability to perform the service I give you comes only from me. I am the great I AM.

The Holy Ministry is filled with people whom God called out of his boundless mercy. Nothing else could explain the choices for ministers that God made! “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me the strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once… [fill in the blank]…. I was shown mercy… The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly” (1 Tim 1:12-14).

This speaks to me in a very special way as your pastor. But you too are called to God’s service, to proclaim the message of salvation. That “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” Paul goes on, “of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15), but really, can’t we all say that. Sin is sin in God’s eyes. We are all tied for the “worst of sinners award”. But God fills you with his overflowing mercy. In fact, Christ Jesus displays his immense patience in the mercy he has shown you. You don’t have to be the shining example of righteousness to share the good news of Jesus with someone. Be real with people. Be real about your own struggles too. Be shining examples of Christ’s mercy for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. All glory, honor and praise be to God for considering sinners like you and me faithful in his service.

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But what does God say? (June 14, 2020)

June 14, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

But what does God say?

1 Kings 22:10-28

https://youtu.be/6ZLSqlTkdJM

 

How long will you stand firm? How long would you hold a position? It’s easy to hold to a conviction or position when you are among the majority. But would you hold to it when you find yourself among the minority? Would you hold to that same position unwaveringly if you were the last person holding to it?

I know this is partially influenced by what kind of position it is. Are we talking about flavors of ice cream here? Are we talking about favorite teams? Are we talking about political positions or worldviews? Are we talking proven, hard facts or opinions? Today we are going to talk about holding firm to a position based on the Word of God. Standing firm upon the word of God, unwaveringly. And we are going to hear the account of a prophet who did so even though his position was opposed to the position of every other so-called prophet. And then we are going to see that doing so, standing firm on the foundation of God’s Word, also has implication for many other aspects of life – many of which are in contention at the present.

So, let’s set the scene. We are in the book of 1st Kings. This is after the first few kings of Israel whose names you may recognize: Saul, David, and Solomon. We are after them, into the divided kingdom of Israel – So you have the northern tribes, simply called Israel, and you have the southern tribes, called Judah. Jehoshaphat is the king of Judah, and he is a good king, a God-fearing king, a believer. And then we have Ahab, king of Israel. He was not a God-fearing king. He was a wicked king who did all kinds of evil – even killed a man named Naboth just because he wanted his vineyard, killed God’s prophets, and many more horrendous things.

So these two kings of divided Israel have a summit, a meeting, because Ahab wants to regain a city called Ramoth Gilead. It’s one of the six cities of refuge that God appointed when Israel took possession of the Promised Land. It was apparently an embarrassment that a heathen nation had captured and occupied such an important city. So, Ahab wanted to retake it and he wanted Jehoshaphat’s help. Jehoshaphat pledged his support, his troops, and his horses, but urged Ahab to first consult the Lord on such a battle. And here’s where it gets interesting!

Ahab brought together all his prophets, about 400 of them and asked, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?” (1 Kgs 22:6). Their response was a unanimous, “Go, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand” (1 Kgs 22:6). One of the prophets even used symbolism, as God often does. Zedekiah made iron horns – iron was the strongest metal of the time, a symbol of strength, and horns were symbols of power and authority – with these he declared, “This is what the Lord says: ‘ With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.’” (1 Kgs 22:11). And I can just picture him holding them to his head, parading around, bucking his head like a mighty ram or raging bull as he spoke. It was a spectacular sight! And quite convincing when all 400 prophets agree and are in consensus with one another!

Yes, but what does God say?” Pious King Jehoshaphat was not impressed – not so easily coerced. He saw this for what it was, a sham, a spectacle, an appeal to the king’s pride and power, a flattery and soothing of their advisers. “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” (1 Kgs 22:7).

It’s easy to get excited, revved up, and passionate about all the things you want to hear. Compliments make us feel great! Complimentary messages are easy to take to heart because they go right along with our convictions. And when so many are saying the same thing, it’s easy to be convinced that these messages must be truth – because surely, it would be impossible for so many to be wrong. What are some of the popular messages today? A 7-day creation of everything that exists is unreasonable now that we have the scientific theory of evolution. Calling sin what it is and urging sinful people to repent is judgmental. We should let people live their lives no matter their convictions. Condemning homosexuality, talking about gender issues, and calling abortion what it is… these are all unloving. God is love, right? Therefore we cannot speak words that touch on sensitive issues and may be hard to swallow.

Sadly, many churches and ministers have been swept along by the tide of society. Sadly, ministers and pastors who refuse to waver on points of biblical teaching are becoming fewer and farther between. I see very much so the exact same picture today as we read about in 1st Kings – a vast majority of ministers speaking flattering words of love over truth, and soothing the sinner’s heart with words of acceptance over truth. And where has this gotten us?! Crowds are gathering and getting their way in certain cities because we have let the popular opinion become more important than the truth. Because we have lost the ability to speak about sensitive topics and speak the truth in love.

The same is true right here in my own heart. Currently, I have a big life decision I have to make in the coming weeks. A decision which leads me to reflect on and evaluate many aspects of my life. I’ve been talking to a number of people I look up to and respect in regards to all of this as well. And would I like them to have nothing but compliments and praise? Sure! Would I like them to paint a bright picture of an easy future? Of course! But we’ve had some difficult conversations. Conversations that touched on and brought to light some flaws and shortcomings which I would rather keep hidden. Did it feel good to talk about them? No! But I would expect nothing less from my advisors. It would be harmful for these issues not to be addressed – to remain hidden and continue to fester.

Just because it’s the popular opinion and an easy teaching to swallow doesn’t mean it’s truth. In fact, Jesus says, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mt 7:13-14). So, when faced with contradictory views, when pressured to change our stance, the question that we must always ask is, “What does God say”.

That’s the question that Jehoshaphat asked when the 400 so-called prophets were rallying together in agreement and putting on a show of it, Jehoshaphat asked, “But what does God say?” “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” (1 Kgs 22:7). And the response Ahab gives is so telling of his attitude, so telling of our very own hearts, so revealing of the sinful nature. It’s almost comical when read out loud, but sadly true… and sadly the story of our own hearts and the story of many ministers of God who have abandoned the truth. “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah” (1 Kgs 22:8). I hate him because he never prophesies anything good… Sometimes the truth is hard to hear.

A messenger summons Micaiah, and actually bludgeons him on the way. I can almost see that move a mom does to her child where she is whispering forcefully in the child’s ear while squeezing his arm so that you know she is serious! All while keeping a smile on her face for onlookers, of course. This messenger, perhaps squeezing Micaiah’s arm tightly says on the way to the assembly, “Look, the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let you word AGREE with theirs, and speak favorably” (1 Kgs 22:13). And how does Micaiah respond? We’ve been working on this, how should we always respond when threatened to change our stance? “But what does God say”. Micaiah responds, “As surely as the LORD lives, I can tell him only what the LORD tells me” (1 Kgs 22:14).

Micaiah is now standing in the presence of the two kings of divided Israel. They are sitting on their thrones dressed in their royal robes looking powerful and noble. The 400 or so other prophets are all there probably looking intensely at Micaiah, intimidating him with their piercing eyes. And the king speaks, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or not?” “Attack and be victorious,” he answered, “for the LORD will give it into the king’s hand” (1 Kgs 22:15). Wait, what? He was swayed? He actually agreed with the false prophets? No, his response is heavily sarcastic. And I’m not just making that up to push my narrative. The king actually perceives it as sarcasm – and I think the prophet’s words carried more weight with the sarcasm, both communicating the truth and condemning the soothsaying false prophets, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” (1 kgs 22:16). And then Micaiah goes on with the plain and simple truth. “All Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd… These people have no master…. If you ever return safely, the LORD has not spoken through me” (1 Kgs 22:17,28).

God certainly has spoken through Micaiah. Unlike those false prophets who are not prophesying at all – because prophecy actually means to “speak forth,” to “speak forth for someone else,” to speak forth for God, not come up with your own words, but simply be a mouth for God’s Words. “Prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt 1:21). Micaiah was the only true prophet – the only one acting merely as a mouthpiece for God’s Word.

It’s fascinating that in this account, too, we get an exclusive peek behind the scenes – much like what happened back in the beginning of Job. Micaiah has an explanation for the false consensus of all the other deceiving prophets. He proclaimed, “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ One suggested this, another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘By what means?’ the LORD asked. ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said” (This deceiving spirit is Satan, the father of lies) “’You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the LORD. ‘Go and do it.’” (1 Kgs 22:19-22).

I find it fascinating that we get a behind the scenes look at what’s going on here. God allows Satan to go out and deceive. And I go into this because we learn 3 very important truths from it. Comforting truths – yes, you heard me right. 1) God is in control, 2) God can work good through evil, 3) God’s plan always prevails. God is in complete control over Satan. It is Satan who must approach God and ask permission. And God limits Satan’s power to carrying out only what he intends. When people continue, intentionally, to reject God and his word, the time finally comes when God abandons them to the control of Satan. God’s plan prevailed through this, punishing Ahab for his unrepentant sins and removing this corrupt king from his position of leadership.

God’s words were clear. God proclaimed through Micaiah that Ahab would be defeated. It was Ahab who rejected the truth of God’s Word. And if you read on in 1st Kings 22, it’s actually really interesting how Ahab tried to evade his fate, yet God’s plans still prevailed.

What does God say to you? What popular opinions and words of flattery does God’s word topple like a house of cards in your life? And, the more important question, will you listen? God’s only intention in touching on difficult topics and pricking the conscience is to lovingly rescue you from the way that leads to condemnation. He addresses sin. Yes, it’s hard to hear at times. But he does so with a loving purpose. God is love – and true love is addressing difficult topics and speaking the truth for your good. So who are you going to listen to? When surrounded my a myriad of opinions and viewpoints – some more popular than others – what does God say?

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Mt 7:15). “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Mt 7:24-25).

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What’s wrong with the world? (June 7, 2020)

June 7, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God is blessing you

2 Corinthians 13:11-14

https://youtu.be/NWvDIVICYZc

 

Cities ablaze. People divided. Illness spreading. Hearts and minds overflowing with unrest. It’s a tragic sight. A repulsive sight! Day after day I read reports of how many died from the pandemic, where was the rioting that destroyed homes, property, and businesses, and how our views are becoming so polarized that its dangerous even to mention it.

Then I open the Bible to study for this week’s service and I read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:3-4). “And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place…’ and it was so… And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:9-10). “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures…’. And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds…’. And God saw that it was good… And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:20-25). “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…’ So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them… God saw all that he had made, and it was very good… Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array” (Gen 1:1-2:1).

What happened?! What have we done?! What we have lost?! Paradise is lost. Harmony in disarray. No longer born in God’s image. All that was good is tainted with evil.

It’s what Paul was dealing with in the Corinthian congregation as well. The church, which was meant to be the beacon of hope, the fortress of peace, the shining light of love… was anything but. Shortly after founding the Corinthian congregation, Paul received troubling reports of problems and abuses. In the church! Among people who called each other brothers and sisters! Division over allegiance to church leaders, judgmentalism, incest and immorality, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, even denial of the resurrection of the dead! It was in regard to all this that Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, but it largely seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

When Timothy followed that letter with a visit, his negative report to Paul triggered a “painful visit” to Corinth. After arriving back in Asia, Paul received yet another unsettling report of events and attitudes in the congregation. Paul sent another letter, a “severe letter”, as it was called – which, unfortunately, was lost to history. Finally, after all of this, hearts began to change. The “severe letter” was well received and followed with repentance – for most of them. All this is the lead up to Paul writing 2nd Corinthians. Still stern where needing to be with those who remain unrepentant – even warning them that he will come and deal sharply with the unrepentant in their midst – but yet, overflowing with love for them and encouragement to forgive the repentant and be reunited with them. Given all that context of sinfulness, stubbornness to amend, and finally repentance and forgiveness, how meaningful are his closing words, “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Cor 13:11). How timely are these words even now! Especially in the times we are enduring. “Rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Cor 13:11).

Where do you think we are at in this timeline of the Corinthian congregation? If our nation was Corinth, where would we be at right now? Have we ignored the first letter? Unsettling reports are flooding in faster than they can be reported. Sadly, I don’t think we are quite at the point of this second letter yet. I don’t see people striving for restoration with one another, rather I see destructive actions. I don’t hear us encouraging one another, I hear put-downs, criticisms, and derogatory remarks. I don’t see people living in peace or being like-minded. I see unrest, anger, and anxiety. And not just “out there”. I’m not just talking about those distant cities on the news… shame on them! I’m looking right into my very own heart, and I’d encourage you to do the same.

I’m looking at some very pointed words from 1 Corinthians, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers… nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). Yes, that section goes on to say, “That is what some of you were” (1 Cor 6:11), but I think we could use a moment to pause and reflect on what was just said, because that sinful nature is still within every one of us. That part of us which will not inherit the kingdom of God is still very much alive and active. And it only takes a catalyst to launch us into a chain reaction of sin. Emotions stirred by the remarks of others. Reactions prompted by the actions of others. Our value and identity shaped and fashioned by those around us. These are condemnable actions. These are sins deserving of hell, deserving of God’s punishment. And it doesn’t take too much digging to see all that’s wrong with the world, all the disappointments you see on the news contained right here too, in my own heart. It all starts in the heart.

Now, if I’m repulsed and disgusted by what I see in the world, imaging what God must be thinking! Imagine how it must feel to have your perfect creation – all set up and perfectly ordered FOR MANKIND, all very good – to be ruined, demolished, and degraded. What is God’s reaction?! “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is with you all” (2 Cor 13:14). I know we often say it and translate it with a “may” at the beginning – “May the grace…” – like it’s wishful thinking or something. But that’s not the case. That’s not actually how it’s written. We often say it that way to use it as a blessing for someone else, but the reason we can use it as a blessing is precisely because this IS the case! There’s no question or iffyness about it. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with you all. The love of God is with you all. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit is with you all.

I don’t know how God does it. After seeing the ugliness of sin that is in each one of us rear its ugly head, I don’t know how God could possibly respond with grace, and love, and fellowship. Well, I do know how… God spells it out in his Word. It’s the story of the Trinity in the lives of believers “grace… love… fellowship.”

It’s by “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 13:14). Grace precisely means that we didn’t do anything to deserve it. Jesus has restored you to that image of God that was lost with his perfect creation. “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified” (1 Cor 6:11). That means cleansed, made holy, and excused of all sin. Jesus died for you! He rose for you! He bought and paid for you with his own blood to restore you to the perfection in which mankind was created. A proper response to this is first of all to believe it! To acknowledge God’s gift of forgiveness and believe it, cherish it, give thanks for it! Follow that with repentance and strive to amend your life to be what God desires you to be.

Grace, we don’t deserve it. But God’s love is what drove it. And should we expect anything less from a God who “created mankind in his own image” (Gen 1:27)? Should we expect anything less from our God who blessed mankind and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground… I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth” (Gen 1:28-29). God lovingly created a home for the crown of his creation. A perfect home for you. And even though we corrupted and lost that home, God’s love never changed – God does not change. He continued to care for and provide for every living thing. Even for all people, believers and unbelievers he continues to provide for and shower with his love! It’s that same unchanging love of God that drove him to send you a Savior. A Savior for the whole world. A proper response is thankfulness for the love God continues to show through his Son, our Savior, and by providing what we need every day. Therefore, we can be confident that even in times like we are in now, God will continue to help and provide.

Fellowship resulted from that grace driven by love. Reflect on that! God desires fellowship with us. God desires and does all he can to make that fellowship possible and available to all people. Despite the world being as it is, God places his name on people like you and me, “Baptizing [you] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:19). In baptism, God comes to dwell with you, to the very end of the age! In the Lord’s Supper too, when you take and eat the body of Christ and take and drink the blood of Christ “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). Even in his Word, God comes to you in fellowship. Jesus said, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). Earlier, he also said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23). God brings you into a very special relationship with him, fellowship with him, through his word and sacraments.

By this grace, driven by love, resulting in fellowship with him, then, God also brings us into fellowship with one other. A right relationship with God is the first step and only way to have a right relationship with one another. It is the only way we can have a glimpse of the harmony, peace, and perfection that God created in the beginning. It is the only way we can get a foretaste of heaven before we arrive there ourselves. So, make God a regular part of your life. Be in his word, often. Remember how he made you his own through baptism, often. Fellowship, commune with his body and blood in the Lord’s supper, often. “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Cor 13:11).

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

May 31, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Jesus Sends the Paraclete

John 16:5-11

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look Up! (May 24, 2020) – Ascension

May 24, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Look Up!

Acts 1:1-11

https://youtu.be/DsPcqQGhHi4

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 17, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

I will not leave you as orphans

John 14:15-21

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory on the one true path to life

1 Peter 2:4-10

https://youtu.be/O3l34GxYUUA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Victory over Bad Choice (May 3, 2020)

May 3, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory over Bad Choices

John 10:1-10

https://youtu.be/_DfNxYGxEJQ

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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