Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church cares” (September 13, 2020)

September 16, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church Cares”

Matthew 18:15-20

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/8Yrm9kdhL9Q

 

We are continuing our sermon series on “God’s Rally Cry for the Church” today. And I want to underscore one of the reasons for such a militaristic series theme. We are in the Church militant. Our lives here on earth are going to be a struggle and a fight from the day we are born till the day we die. We fight against our own sinful nature. We fight against the temptations and deceptions of Satan. We fight against the evil of this world. These all try to tear us away from our victory in Christ. One day, we will be in the “Church triumphant” in heaven. But right now, we are in the Church militant. We continue to fight our daily battles. And, I know, at times it may feel like you are getting nowhere in the battle. It may feel like you are being pushed back, turned around, and fleeing. Some days it may just feel like you’ve lost completely and raised the flag of surrender. But do not despair. God has already won the victory. Although we still fight and struggle, the church is “tanky”. (That’s a term used by video game players to describe a character who can take a hit in a fight, whose not going to go down easily).

On the morning of May 15th, 1940, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and said, “We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” Churchill, attempting to offer some comfort to Reynaud, reminded the Prime Minister of all the times the Germans had broken through the Allied lines in the First World War only to be stopped. In other words, the allied forces were “tanky”. Reynaud, however, was inconsolable.

Churchill flew to Paris on May 16th. He immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and was preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a somber meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, “Where is the strategic reserve?” that had saved Paris in the First World War. Gamelin replied: “There is none. Inferior numbers, inferior equipment, inferior methods.”

Do you ever feel like you have inferior numbers, inferior equipment, and inferior methods as you strive to be salt and light in the world? Are you are fired up to live your faith and talk about your faith, only to have a wet blanket thrown on that zeal again and again? Maybe you’ve even been convinced that you are the one troubling the world. If you would just keep quiet and keep your convictions to yourself, then the world would just be a more peaceful place. Why do I even try? Why continue to try when the world is unmoved, unchanged by what I have to say? I sometimes feel like I am caught between a rock and a hard place.

The monstrous impenitence of Judah and the unbending justice of God caught Jeremiah between them. He staggered under the burden. And although he fought ferociously against it, he could not overcome the cold despair which slowly numbed his faith. The people of Judah refused to listen, and instead saw the prophet as an enemy. As Ahab once pointed an accusing finger at Elijah, saying, “You are the one who troubles Israel,” so Jeremiah’s contemporaries lashed out at him. If it wasn’t for him and his incessant preaching of judgment, the land would be at peace. The Lord told him at the very beginning of his ministry that all would oppose him. Now the reality of that prophecy was bearing down on Jeremiah with all its force.

In an effort to fight off the damp darkness creeping into his soul, the prophet turned to the Word, to his certain knowledge of the Lord’s character. He confessed that the Lord knew the anguish of his heart and felt with him and for him. He knew the Lord would protect him. He had been faithful to his calling despite the bullets fired back at him, zinging past his ears, grazing his arms, and stinging his flesh. How many insults had stung him! How often he had been called the fool for his message! How many times the people of Judah had thrown the question in his face, “Where is the fulfillment of the Lord’s Word?” when he prophesied the destruction of Judah.

He had always found his strength in the Lord’s Word. God’s Word was his fortress, his support, his strength in life. What joy, what force of life came to him as he devoured it! How it lifted his soul and refreshed his spirit! Yet, this time, Jeremiah let the comfort of the Word slip from him. He fell back on his own strength, and soon the pain overwhelmed him. The blackness of despair drawing everything into itself, engulfed the prophet’s faith, hope, and very spirit. He was being overrun. He could not hold back his doubts any longer. They rushed upon him. They made the Lord’s Word seem only a distant whisper. They called God’s promise and person into question. “You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails” (Jer 15:18). In the heat of battle does God give out on him? His aching bones and weary soul cry out, “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?” (Jer 15:18). His inner pain blotted out hope, all the love he had known from the Lord, and every promise by which he had lived. Jeremiah hurts deeply. He describes this hurt as an incurable wound. The Hebrew text actually personifies it as a wound “refusing to be healed.”

Jeremiah turns to the Lord, this time, not for hope and strength, but in disappointed accusation. The insinuation is that the Lord is responsible. “You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me… So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long… I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side! Denounce him! Let’s denounce him!’ All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him’” (Jer 20:7-10).

Do you feel like everyone is waiting for you to screw up, say a wrong thing, or give up on your faith? Do you feel the terror on every side closing in on you? Are you hurting? And even when you go to the Lord for strength and comfort, is his Word like a “deceptive brook”? Like a “spring that fails”?

I’ll admit, sometimes that’s how I feel when I face the disheartening times when someone walks away from the church for something other than matters of faith. Or someone is upset by a biblical teaching we hold to. Or someone just isn’t interested in hearing the Word of God from our church because some other church has better music, more programs, or whatever else should supplement, not take precedence over God’s Word. And then I go to Scripture looking for comfort and hope but it seems to be all lies! These promises of God are not coming true. Where is the one who rejoices with me and says, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”?! Where are your good promises Lord? Why do I only find promises of hardship and cross bearing, of few entering in and losing my life for your sake? Why do I have to be a living sacrifice? Why is it so hard to win? Why does it always feel like I’m losing the battle of life?

This is a very dangerous road to be walking down. By complaining against God and calling him unfaithful, we are compromising his unchanging and eternal message – calling it faulty and unreliable. And by compromising the message, we are only plunging ourselves deeper and deeper into the pits of despair. Only convincing ourselves more and more of our own unworthiness, and foolishly believing that God is not protecting his Church with his almighty arms. In fact, we are compromising the very certainty of our hope of salvation – both for ourselves and for others. Afterall, if we are always complaining that God is unfair and unfaithful in life, then why should anyone believe us when we tell them about the hope we have, or about the resurrection of Jesus and certainty of salvation? We ourselves become false prophets when we cast doubt upon God’s Word. By doubting his promises, we make God out to be a liar.

God’s reaction to Jeremiah, and to us, is calm and to the point. He doesn’t remove the cross of persecution. Rather, he commands his prophet to repent and turn to God for mercy. In the midst of such unbelief and despair, such smallness and narrowness of vision, God slapped the prophet to his senses with the word, “Repent.” Turn to me, listen to my voice. Grab hold of my promises and forget about your ineptitude. Forget about who or what is fighting against you and look to the one who fights for you.

Jeremiah had lost his sense. He had become like those to whom he was preaching; he had begun to turn to them; he had begun to yield the truth of God. The Lord called him back – not by changing his own ways, but by strengthening Jeremiah to change his ways and trust in his true source of strength and protection for his daily battles.

As the French were retreating, reserves depleted, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated before the House of Commons: “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy.”

It is our policy too, to wage war against the forces of evil in this dark world. To wage war with all the strength that God can give us against the monstrous tyranny of sin. It never ceases to amaze me how closely our good fight of faith parallels actual war with these quotes. Only, we are not fighting a battle of flesh and blood, but a battle for souls. The Lord maintains that the ministry of Jeremiah will be a fight, but because of the Lord’s grace and mercy, Jeremiah would be “tanky” in this fight. He will come out the victor. The promise is based on the Lord’s presence: “I am with you.” “I will make you a wall to this people, a fortified wall of bronze” – the strongest material at the time – “they will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you” declares the Lord (Jer 15:20).

He’s fighting on your side. Though we fight our daily battles – winning some, losing some. He’s fighting the war. And, in fact, he’s already won the war. He fought for your souls with his own flesh and blood. He fought against sin. He fought against Satan. Even when his own turned against him, “Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22), he still prevailed, advancing all the way to the cross, where he sealed the victory over sin, Satan, even death itself. If you need proof that even in the moments of seeming defeat you will prevail through Christ, you need only look to him. Even as Jesus dies on the cross, seemingly defeated, yet he was in complete control – rescuing and saving as promised. Satan did not take his life from him. He laid it down willingly, and only when he himself deemed, “It was finished”.

So even though the ungodly will continually fight against you, God’s people – that shouldn’t surprise us. You have God’s promise that he will not only be fighting by your side, but he’s already won the war! There’s nothing for you to worry about. In every adversity, persecution, or trouble, turn to the Lord. He will rescue and save. He will make you a fortified wall of bronze – of titanium – and you will prevail! Though troubles assail you, you will not be shaken because God is with his Church. He makes the Church “tanky” with his faithful promises that cannot be breeched.

When you are struggling, when you are hurting. When you feel all alone, beat down, and defeated by the world around you. When you feel like giving up because what’s the point of even fighting against it any more… Do not turn to them. Sure, you may save your life in this world, but ultimately you will have lost it. Turn only to the Lord. It is in him you find the endurance needed to face this world. In him you find the certainty of salvation. Him who will bring you safely through this life and give you the crown of victory already won.

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God’s Rally Cry: “The Church will not fall!” (September 6, 2020)

September 12, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church will not fall!”

Matthew 16:13-20

View our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMqMmOTG1kg

 

Taking his opponents by surprise and creating uncertainty in their minds were key elements in Rommel’s approach to offensive warfare. In the African theater of World War II, he took advantage of sandstorms and the dark of night to conceal the movement of his forces – thus gaining for himself the nickname “The Desert Fox”. The allied troops had recently been pushed back over the Egyptian border, and the commander of the Allied Eighth Army was recently shot down when his aircraft was intercepted. Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army and gave this speech to his demoralized troops before defeating Rommel’s Afrika Corps:

“Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burned, and at once. We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.”

It kind of reminds me of Martin Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

It’s really the reason for Jesus’ questioning in the Bible reading we had today. What are you standing upon? Is it the firm rock of truth, or will it crumble and fall?

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:14). And before you go through this list and simply say, “Wrong, wrong, and wrong,” Don’t overlook that this is a very illustrious group of people. The people didn’t think Jesus was a slouch or even a fraud. They had great respect for him! Jesus called people to repentance as John the Baptist did, and his disciples baptized. Like Elijah, Jesus was a man of prayer and a great miracle worker. He, too, took issue with the false religions of his day. And, the authorities turned against Jesus; he had no place to lay his head – a suffering prophet like Jeremiah. However, although all these were very complimentary ideas, they all fell short of the mark. None of these convictions of Jesus were spot on. None of them saw him as the promised redeemer he truly was. And therefore, all these convictions were built upon crumbling ground.

But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15). Jesus is clearly interested in what each person believes about him. He is clearly interested in what you personally confess about Jesus. Now, there was no opportunity for the disciples to hide behind the opinions of others. Jesus put them on the spot and asked his disciples very directly about their convictions. Peter answered on behalf of the disciples. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).

That title, “Christ” or “Messiah” – they are actually the same word, by the way. They both mean “The Anointed One”. Christ is the Greek word. Messiah is the Hebrew word. This title, “Christ” / “Messiah,” held before the Jewish hearer the promise of the great hero of redemption. Not only did Peter identify Jesus with a prophetic title that went beyond the prevailing views of his day, he showed that he now perceived it in a deeper way. Not only was Jesus the “Son of Man,” but Peter also identified him as “the Son of the living God!” God was living and active right before their very eyes in Jesus, the Christ.

So, what about you? Who do you say Jesus is? Because there is a right and a wrong answer. Even in our day, few people have anything bad to say about Jesus. But, sadly, they never want to say quite enough. Our own thinking and understanding, our own reasoning can only take us so far. It can lead us to speak well of Jesus. It can lead us to value his teachings as principles for good living. But to confess him as the promised Christ, the Son of the Living God, human reason cannot lead us here.

Experiences in life can teach us too. It can teach us that for everything there is a cause and effect, an investment and return. We can maybe apply that and reason that If I do good to you then you will do good to me. Life also teaches us that everything has a beginning and an end. I was born and one day I will die. Everything wears down and meets its end eventually, so the same must be true for me. Eventually I too will wear down and meet my end. And IF there is anything that follows, well… I hope my investment of good, my climbing the spiritual ladder, will be enough to make it through the gates.

Life experience and human reason can only take us so far though. Like the people’s opinion in Jesus’ day and the opinion of many in our day, it can hint at the truth, but it’s never going to be enough. Not every good opinion concerning Jesus is valid or of saving significance. Turn to Scripture and learn what the Father reveals. The Father reveals that I have not done enough. The Father reveals that I will meet my end and I have fallen short of the glory of God. And unless I have some Redeemer to cancel all that out in some way; if I’ve built my hopes upon what I can reason, what I learn through experience, then I’ve built my hopes upon a foundation of sand.

Later we will talk a little bit about the work of the Church – the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven – binding and loosing. Jesus is giving the Church the authority to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness in his name. Forgiveness sounds great and loving and kind! But I think the “binding key” the withholding forgiveness sometimes gets a bad rap. It too is loving. It too is meant for your good. Picture it this way. When I was young, I liked going to haunted houses. I remember one in particular where once you enter it is pitch black – you couldn’t see a thing. So you are feeling your way down a hallway with a couple twists and turns, bumping into the walls as you go. Then, suddenly, nothing. It feels like you are finally free from the restricting hallway, finally out into a big open room. But then the lights flip on and you realize that you are in a cage – a prison – and there’s a scary guy in a mask with a fake chainsaw ready to do his worst! That’s what the binding key does – it flips on the lights. Our sins already imprison us. At times we may even feel free as we live in sin, but the reality is we are not. The binding key flips on the lights and reveals the prison of sin we are already living in. It reveals the need for repentance and instills a longing to be freed from sin.

Besides revealing my own shortcomings, flaws, and misconceptions – hemming me into a prison of sin and condemnation – the Father also reveals the great hero of redemption. The hero who unlocks the bonds of sin and death. This Jesus, the Anointed One, paid the price for your sin so that you would not fall short. He unlocks the gates and shows you that there is life even after death for those who stand on the rock-solid confession that Jesus is the Christ, our Redeemer from sin. “What about you? Who do you say I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt 16:15-18). “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! HE gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you!” (1 Cor 15:55-58). The gates of Hades – that is, the gates of death – will not overcome the Church. The Church WILL NOT fall. And those in the Church will merely pass through death, as one passes through a door, and enter into eternal life!

This confession is the “boulder” upon which Christ builds his church. To get the linguistic sense of what Jesus is saying, I’ll paraphrase it this way: “I say to you, you are called ‘rock,’ and on this ‘boulder’ of a confession I will build my church and the powers of death and hell will not overcome it.” It is this confession that is the strength of the Church – the foundation upon which it cannot fall. Christ’s Church (the true Israel) will be built on Peter’s confession and built by him whom Peter confessed.

Although Peter was identified as “the rock,” the Gospels show that he was anything but rock-like. His emotions often overwhelmed him. His actions often belied his nickname. But upon this boulder of a confession, his faith could not be shaken. It was the blessing of the Father that would turn him into a pillar of the church. It is that same blessing of the Father working through Word and Sacrament that also turns you into a pillar of the Church. God’s Word gives you the firm foundation. God’s Holy Supper strengthens you to become boulders! Because it stands on the Rock and not on the pebbles of men who serve it, the Church will stand forever. Its message is changeless, the ramifications of its work are eternal.

What is that message? What is the work that the Church performs, and its people proclaim? “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). There is no higher freedom than to be a forgiven sinner. There is no harsher prison than to be bound under guilt and condemnation. And just to remind you, sin has already bound and imprisoned each one of us. The “binding key” is meant to show each person the bars of the prison they are already in so that they can repent of sin and long for the “loosing key” of the gospel. So that they can go to their Savior for the freedom of forgiveness he freely offers.

This is the privilege with eternal consequences that Christ bestows upon the Church. Don’t take this up lightly or use it frivolously. But realize the great power it can have in a person’s life when God works through the Word to reveal the prison of sin and unlock the gates of death and hell. It is the Church’s responsibility to reveal sin and forgive repentant hearts using the Word of God. And you can support your church in doing this by modeling repentance and forgiveness in your own home and among friends, by praying for the work our church does, by supporting the ministry of our church. We are currently working to expand the reach of our church’s work. Yes, that means spreading ourselves out and perhaps being stretched a bit thin at the moment. And although we do not know our future for certain – God doesn’t promise an easy life, but he certainly does amazing things – God has a promise for you: His Church will not fall. You will not be overcome by death, sin, or Satan, because you stand here on the truth of our Redeemer. This is the truth we stand upon, unmoved. This is the truth we proclaim: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

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God’s Rally Cry: “The Church is for all” (August 30, 2020)

September 1, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church is for all”

Matthew 15:21-28

Livestream link: https://youtu.be/RLJ7DNqRqPU

 

For the next five Sunday, we will be focusing on different attributes of the Church that are recorded in Scripture and promised by God. And when I say “Church” here, I’m talking about church with a capital “C”. In other words, not this physical congregation. Not the WELS as a church body. I’m talking about the “Invisible Church” – that is, those whom God knows are his. All true believers.

The way I’m grouping and wording the themes for these next 5 Sundays are actually meant to sound like a “rally cry”. Like one of those speeches a General would give before an important battle to boost morale and soar spirits! Because we could certainly use a moral boost these days. We could certainly use a reminder of God’s promises to his Church and why we exist as a “Communion of Saints”. In keeping with the theme of “God’s Rally Cry,” I’m hoping to start each one of these sermons with a portion of a speech given before a major historical event.

So, God’s Rally Cry for today is: The Church is for all! And I’m going to quote from President John F. Kennedy as he’s bracing the nation for the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962. “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

That same day, President Kennedy announced that the US would intercept all shipments to Cuba. The problem was a naval blockade was considered an act of war – this during a time when tensions between the US and the USSR were already heavy. President Kennedy said it wasn’t a blockade, but rather a “Quarantine” that didn’t block basic necessities. What followed was the most intense 6 days of the Cold War.

While it’s true that the “blockade” or “quarantine” was meant to be for the good of all people and promote peace, not all blockades have the same intention. In fact, you could say that the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus day set up a blockade of God’s love over the people of their day. They put God’s grace and favor behind a blockade of their own man-made rules and traditions and criticized those who did not follow them. Even going as far as to not even associate with certain people – people who needed God’s love. Just before the section of the text we have for today, the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for eating with unwashed hands – eating in a ceremonially unclean way. And it went further than that. They would prevent people from helping their livestock on the Sabbath. They would even prevent sons and daughters from helping their father and mother if their possessions were declared as being “devoted to God” and thus, must be given as an offering. And Jesus calls them out on this. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Mt 15:8-9). They were blockading God’s love, and thus, failed the love test.

After this encounter, Jesus withdrew from Galilee and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon – this is outside the promised land. Outside the nation of Israel. And a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” (Mt 15:22). Yet, surprisingly, Jesus did nothing! This mom is pleading on behalf of her daughter. She perhaps lies on the bed next to her daughter as she’s sleeping, gently stroking her hair, because it’s the only moment of peace she has with her daughter. The demon perhaps makes this girl’s eyes roll back in her head or cackle like a jackal. It perhaps pushes her down like a bully on the playground. What would you do if your daughter had a creature from another realm living in her?! Yet, Jesus does nothing!

So the disciples came to Jesus and urged him to send her away. Maybe they were embarrassed by her cries for help. Maybe they wanted to preserve Jesus’ privacy since he meant this trip as a sort of retreat from all the things that had been going on back in Israel – his cousin, John the Baptist was beheaded, the religious gnats kept showing up to berate Jesus for not obeying the laws. So they urged Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us” (Mt 15:23).

Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 15:24). Really, Jesus? Have you failed the love test? What about Rahab back in Jericho, who is in the line of the Promised Savior?! What about the Centurion whose servant you healed? To the five thousand people who followed you around the sea of Galilee you showed compassion. You walked out to the disciples on the water and calmed their fears in a very personal way. You’ve rebuked the Pharisees and teachers of the law for blockading love. You’ve gone to great lengths to show that people matter most, even putting your words into action by taking this hundred mile journey into Tyre and Sidon and you are really going to tell me that you were only sent to the lost sheep of Israel?

But who was Jesus looking at when he said this? What was his inflection? It was said in response to the disciples. Was he looking at them? Was there perhaps some cutting sarcasm in his voice? Did the disciples just fail the love test? They just wanted to be done with her – whether that meant sending her away empty handed or granting her request for the wrong reason. We know Jesus was not only sent for Israel but for all people. Perhaps he was only testing his disciples, and they just failed.

Do we fail the love test? There was apparently a conversation with President Abraham Lincoln during the civil war in which he was asked, “How is the war today?” He responded, “We lost 300 men. They lost 3,200.” “Splendid!” The person remarked. To which Lincoln responded, “3,500 lives were lost today, how is that splendid?”

Are we so concerned with what kind of people are in our church – what kind of people we associate with – that we are so cold and unloving to souls that are perishing? Do we, like the Pharisees, blockade God’s love? Do we fail to love people who are precious in God’s eyes? Do we insult the sacrifice of Christ and his blood shed for all people because we find certain people undesirable or inconvenient to deal with? Are we the judge of who deserves God’s love and forgiveness? Or is it for all?

It’s true, the woman was not among the chosen nation of Israel. She was not among the “children” in that sense. She understood Jesus’ words, but that did not prevent her from getting the “crumbs” – the blessings that Jesus could give her without depriving the “children” of anything.

Scripture is filled with some of the “least likely people.” Rahab, a prostitute from a heathen nation helps the Israelites take the land God promised. Rugged shepherds were the heralds of the King’s birth. Women were the first to witness the empty tomb in a society where men should have been the first credible witnesses. A Pharisee who was on a mission to stop Christianity was stopped dead in his tracks and took on a new mission to spread the good news of Christ risen from the dead! This Canaanite woman, from an area where most were gross unbelievers and idolaters, yet she cried out, “Lord, Son of David” (Mt 15:22). That’s a title for Jesus that carries some great weight. It means that whatever she understood of Israel’s hopes, whatever she knew of the promised Savior, one thing is clear: she believed that Jesus was the one. The true Messiah. She believed that Jesus could and would help her. She sensed the “Yes” behind Jesus’ “No” and clings to him to ring the “yes” out of his “no”! She replied “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Mt 15:27). The Lord could answer her prayer without taking any blessing from the Jews.

She reminds us of Jacob who wrestled with God and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” God loves it when his children “change his mind”. And I have that in quotes because God knows all along what he will do. He also knows just exactly how to stretch our faith and make it grow – not for him – but so that we can be benefitted and see the greatness of our God and the strength of our faith when it is placed in him!

She impresses Jesus with her faith! Jesus says she has a “mega” faith. She believed in him as the Lord, the promised Son of David. She trusted in his mercy and love for all people. She admitted her unworthiness. She accepted his word. She believed that he would not refuse her despite who she was! Because the Church is for all. Isn’t that something we can strive for! To impress Jesus with our faith. To reach out in love to all people because the church is for all people. To reach out with God’s Word trusting that he can work miraculous faith and renewal even in those we might consider the “least likely” kind of people.

You probably noticed the surprising way that Jesus deals with the woman here – a methodology that you and I probably wouldn’t use. Ignoring her, then seemingly insulting her. But remember that this is Jesus. Jesus’ primary concern is that people believe that he is the Savior and that they remain in the saving faith. He can read the heart, and he knows exactly what’s best for each person. He deals with individuals – that’s why sometimes we get a strange approach that we would never use, but it reveals stunning results. Don’t blockade God’s love by judging a person when you can’t see their heart. God knows them personally, died for them, and works through his word to change even the most unlikely of candidates. Reach out in love. For once you too were not a people. But God reached out to you in love and made you his own – gave you a place to belong – through faith in this Son of David.

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God walks on what you fear (August 23, 2020)

August 25, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God walks on what you fear

Matthew 14:22-33

View our livestream: https://youtu.be/fLE2RJgtuA8

 

Fear is often caused by the lack of control over self and the world. You may fear losing your job because you have no clue what you would do, how you would provide for yourself. That fear may have been brought closer to reality in recent months as companies have had to downsize. You may fear the first day at a new school because you don’t know exactly what to expect. Are you going to know where your classes are? Are you going to be overwhelmed with the course load? Are you going to be able to make some new friends? There’s a lot in our lives that we don’t really have control over. When these very real things hit close to home, what do you do? How do you make it through a fearful and trying time?

For the disciples, gaining control was the only thing on their mind. They had just witnessed Jesus feed over 5,000 people with nothing more than a boy’s lunch. Jesus sent them on ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee by boat while he dismissed the crowd and retreated for a quiet moment of prayer. As is common on the Sea of Galilee, a squall arose and the wind and waves fought against the disciples’ progress across the sea. They rowed and rowed and rowed. The struggled to gain control and keep control. Struggled to make progress as arms and backs began to go numb. If they couldn’t row, they couldn’t keep control. If they couldn’t keep control, they were at risk of capsizing.

By now, it was nearing dawn. And as the disciples frantically rowed with little progress, Jesus walked across the lake. He didn’t simply appear, as he could have. He did not fly or float through the air. He walked across the surface of the water as if it were solid ground. The very thing the disciples had been struggling and fighting against all night, the very water that posed such a great threat to their lives, Jesus walked on it like it was dry ground. You could say, he treads their fears underfoot. Jesus walked on what they feared.

Though the laws of nature say this shouldn’t happen – gravity should pull down on Jesus and the water molecules should disperse – but just who is it that created the water? Who is it that ordered gravity to do what it does? What a Savior we have who walks on the waters of our greatest fears! See the faith of the disciples grow! See Peter show that faith in his own miraculous walk. Faith was swelling like the waves of the sea!

But… doubt is often the unfortunate companion of faith. Peter, the man of action, is ready at once! He calls out, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water” (Mt 14:28). “Come” (Mt 14:29), Jesus said, calmly displaying that what he can do, could also be done by those who trust in him. Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus! As long as he looked to the Lord and clung to his word, he stood on solid ground. But when he saw the gusting wind, his faith let go of Jesus, and in the same moment he began to sink. It was the power of Jesus’ word that had kept him up, not the laws of nature. And once he doubted that word of promise from Jesus, he sunk. Though Jesus was standing on the water, Peter feared it.

Here we have a striking picture of spiritual walk of any believer. The surface may be a raging storm and turbulent sea. But as long as you plant your feet on the promises of God and fix eyes of faith upon him alone, all is well. Though the waters roar and foam, you have a firm foundation. You have a strength which cannot be overcome because it is God’s strength. But as soon as you lose your hold on the promises and allows your eyes to wander away from Jesus, toward the dangers and afflictions of this life – fearing the loss of control – then you and I will be overwhelmed by our own weakness. Then we have nothing but our own strength – and this is no strength at all. Doubt is the unfortunate companion to faith. Wherever faith clings to the promises of God, doubt is always right there lingering in the back of our minds, constantly asking the serpent’s question, “Did God really say?”

What is it that pulls your eyes of faith away from Jesus? What are the wind and waves in your life that make you doubt him from time to time? Is it a past life you are so disgusted of that you simply can’t believe that you are worthy in God’s eyes? Simply can’t believe those words of forgiveness and love spoken by Jesus and guaranteed at the cross? Is it the finite things you have in life? I only have so much of this, or so much of this, and the laws of economy or laws of nature say that I am losing ground not gaining it – struggling frantically against the storm of life, trying to keep my neck above water. Is it the relationships that are stretched thin, or the tearing loss of someone you love that perhaps causes you to doubt if God really is in control? If God really does work all things for good?

To Peter, Jesus asked, “Why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31). He gave no answer. What could he say? With Jesus there is never any reason to doubt? Any answer he could have given would just be an excuse – an attempt to cover up his doubt just as Adam and Eve tried to cover up theirs by hiding, blaming, and sewing fig leaves. James calls us out as being “double-minded” “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (Jas 1:6-8) when we doubt God. With Jesus there is never any need to doubt. He walks on what we fear – tramples it underfoot. How sad that we often end up neck deep in our doubts.

Thankfully, Jesus reaches out in love, even when we are unsure of him or doubting. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught [Peter]” (Mt 14:31). He didn’t make Peter reach out. He didn’t reprimand him first. Didn’t wait until Peter trusted fully once again. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter” (Mt 14:31). I find it interesting too, that Jesus physically reached out – that Jesus made sure he was close enough during Peter’s time of need that he could reach out and hold Peter. He could have levitated Peter out of the water and back into the boat, but he didn’t. He could have immediately calmed the wind and the waves when he first walked out to the disciples. But he didn’t. He gave them his word. He said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Mt 14:27). He gave them a promise to hold onto, just as he gave Peter a promise before he walked on the water, “Come” (Mt 14:29).

It’s an important lesson we need to learn. Jesus often does NOT take away the adversity in life that causes such doubt. Rather, he reminds us of who he is: the one who walks on water. The one who walks on what we fear. And as he treads the waves of adversity under his feet, he swells our trust in HIM to carry us through that adversity. When we hear his voice, the waves of doubt recede and faith finds its place again, making us once again, “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1).

The true answer to doubt is not found in a great miracle that removes adversity, but in the still small voice of our Savior God whispering in his Word. I think another place that is vividly displayed is in the first reading from today (1 Kings 19:9-18). Elijah’s great victory of faith over the prophets of Baal was followed closely by great adversity. Elijah had faith in God’s power, but he doubted when God’s plans and purpose did not match his own – there was no mass spiritual renewal after the display of God’s power. Elijah retreated to a cave, brought his case against the people of Israel and grumbled against God. And God answered his prophet, not with great acts of power – not with ripping winds, rumbling earthquakes, or scorching fires – but in a gentle whisper. Quiet words of promise. God displayed all of his power so that his display of gentle grace might be all the more astounding!

Even when in the midst of adversity, even when everything seems out of control and there is plenty you could be fearing, trust in the one who walks on what you fear. Trust that Jesus is still in control of everything you face in life. We’ve seen that’s the case already in this Bible reading, but there’s one small yet important detail that blows this up even bigger. It’s right at the beginning and easy to miss. “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd” (Mt 14:22). Jesus sounds kind of pushy. He made the disciples get into the boat. What’s going on here? John gives us the context in his account of the same event: “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed (feeding the 5,000), they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (Jn 6:14-15). Jesus knew that this unholy political pressure would be a real temptation to his disciples. He made them get into the boat and cast off to send them away from an even greater temptation. The Lord knew that there was more danger to the disciples in the favor of the crowd than in the fury of the storm. The temptation to make Jesus an earthly king, and them his honored nobility.

How many more devastating temptations has Jesus sent us away from? How many times has Jesus kept us from and protected us from very real dangers and threats? Jesus does not give us more than we can bear. And when we are tempted – when we feel that we are facing more than we can bear – he always gives us a way out. That way out is often up. Up to God in prayer. Peter’s prayer is so short and to the point. A reminder that even short prayers are long enough. His simple, three-word prayer was sufficient for his purpose. So, when God does allow adversity to strike, Lord, teach us to pray, “Lord, save me!”

The true answer to doubt is focusing once again on the Savior. When you do, you can also watch your faith swell as the disciples’ did when their doubts vanished and they gave the greatest evidence of faith: They worshiped that man from Nazareth for what he truly was, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt 14:33).

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Did God cause COVID? (August 16, 2020)

August 20, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Did God cause COVID?

Genesis 41:41-49

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/sqV3YYvj3ws

 

I was recently asked, “Did God cause COVID?” A valid question. In fact, I think it’s a question that we often ask throughout life. Is this from God? Is he causing this hardship? But far more important than answering the questions, “Did God cause it” is considering, “What can God work through it?”

There are a number of people in the Bible whose stories span a number of chapters – sometimes even a number of books. One of these people is Joseph. Not, Mary and Joseph – parents of Jesus – from the New Testament. But the Joseph of the Old Testament – one of the 12 sons of Jacob (later known as Israel). Many of you are familiar with some of the accounts from Joseph’s life. He had the coat of many colors. He had the dreams of the sheaves bowing down to his; and the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. He even interpreted dreams for Pharaoh later in his life. But rather than just taking little snippets from their lives here and there, sometimes reading their whole story really gives you a whole new perspective. A big picture perspective. A perspective that I think we fail to see in our own lives at times.

If Joseph were counting the triumphs and failures of his life – the highs and lows – I think the lows would really dominate his list. There were some highs, yes. Often, they came after long years of faithful work. But then they would immediately be overshadowed by the crushing lows that would take everything away from him and shatter his life to pieces.

He didn’t know his life would be violently thrown off course that one sunny afternoon he went to check on his brothers in the field. But their loathing of him had been slowly growing for a number of years. And today they would finally act on it. They originally plotted to kill him. A muddy cistern seemed like a better option at the moment. But when a trade caravan was seen in the distance the jealous brothers decided to act on their hatred and satisfy their greed at the same time. Joseph was brought up from the pits only to be sold as a slave.

As a slave in Potiphar’s house, however, Joseph slowly worked his way up the ladder until he became Potiphar’s attendant – in charge of his whole household! With faithful service and a lot of hard work, things were finally looking up for Joseph! That is… until his master’s lustful wife falsely accused Joseph of making a pass at her and he was thrown, once again, into the pits – this time, the place where the king’s prisoners were kept.

So, Joseph went at it again. He was a respectful prisoner and gained favor in the eyes of the prison warden. Again, Joseph was put in a position of authority – in charge of all of those in prison. It certainly wasn’t Potiphar’s house of nobility, but it was something. Things continued to look up when Joseph met Pharaoh’s own Cupbearer and Baker. (And I know, these might sound like fairly measly positions, but they were in charge of making sure Pharaoh’s food wasn’t poisoned – a pretty important position). They somehow landed themselves in prison, but Joseph interpreted their dreams and asked the Cupbearer to make mention of him when he was released from prison in three days. Those days turned into weeks, and months, and years. The Cupbearer forgot all about Joseph who remained there in that prison.

All his problems were quite clear. It seemed any time he worked hard for something, it would slip through his fingers. Was God the cause of all Joseph’s trials?

It’s easy to see our troubles. Easy to count our burdens. I mean, what is it that often fills our conversations? It’s easy to complain about this going wrong. Or grumble about when this is ever going to get better. How often are our prayers filled with all the things that God needs to change in our lives or all the things he needs to do for us rather than overflowing with thanksgiving for all that he has done for us? It’s easy to count our problems. It’s easy to wonder, “Did God cause this?”

We see all the problems and none of the possibilities. I’m not saying your estimation of your circumstance is wrong. You may be in the pits. Life may have been particularly hard. You may meet roadblock after roadblock. And no doubt it’s hard. No doubt it knocks you off your feet. But it’s not cause for despair. It’s not cause to doubt God. It’s not cause to turn away in rebellion. Rather, it’s a time to cling to him and trust that even in the worst of situations, he could be working something beautiful. Strive to peer through the fog of pain and hardship – to see what God might be accomplishing.

It’s true, there are evils in life. It’s true too that Satan and sinful people – us included – actually cause many of the evils in life. Who was it, after all, that planted seeds of doubt and mistrust for God all the way back in the garden of Eden? I look at more recent events too. When COVID first hit and businesses everywhere were closed – when churches too were closing their doors. How could God allow this? How will his Word be heard if people can’t even go to church. But then, what I saw, was churches immediately going to a new medium. Churches everywhere were livestreaming their services and reaching a larger audience. And in the home too, there were positive changes. Churches were open in Christian homes across the globe. Fathers and mothers took an active role in sitting down with their children to worship online or read the Bible. Parents could explain things in greater detail to their children without interrupting other worshipers. And Christians gained a healthy longing and appreciation for gathering with fellow Christians when things open again.

Or, you could turn to the greatest evil this world has ever known: When wicked men spat in God’s face, tore open his flesh with the scourge, mocked and crucified God. God was killed by wicked men. “Did God cause this?” “Was this God’s plan?” I’m sure the disciples would have loved a quiet evening with their Lord on the Passover. Jesus even prayed if there was another way. But if that were the case, if God did not use the evil plotted by wicked men for his good purpose, then the disciples would forever remain a stone’s throw from God – never measuring up, and never free from their sins. Then you and I too would be forever in darkness and despair – destined only for the pit of hell.

“Did God cause this?” A better question is, “What was God doing through this?” And when you shift your focus on what you are tracking – what you are counting – then you see that the world’s greatest atrocity is also the world’s greatest joy! It was by following that road all the way to the pain and suffering of the cross, by facing the wrath of God against every one of my sins and your sins, that you and I are saved! He drank deeply from the cup of suffering so that your cup would overflow with grace beyond measure!

Sure, we could try to count the injustices against our Lord. Or we could try to count our own wrongdoing, weigh our own guilt and wonder if God’s grace is enough. But asking that question, wondering if we are forgiven, we are doubting if God is enough. Because it is God who forgives. It is God who earned your salvation. It is God who suffered hell in your place, really died, and then rose victorious! Brothers and sister, let me tell you there is enough! God is more than enough to cover a multitude of wrongs. In fact, once you shift your focus and begin counting God’s graces, it isn’t even worth counting anymore. “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!” (Rm 5:15).

There were plenty of problems that Joseph could have been counting – front and center was the immense weight of bringing Egypt safely through this great calamity – but God would see him through it. In fact, throughout Joseph’s life the same phrase keeps popping up. “The Lord was with him” (Gen 39:2, 39:21). The Lord was with him as a slave in Potiphar’s house. The Lord was with him as a prisoner in the king’s prison. The Lord was with him through the 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine. In fact, the Lord provided in such great measure that “Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure” (Gen 41:49).

God brought Joseph through all the trials and struggles he faced in life so that he could be exactly where God needed him at exactly the right time. Not only did God have Joseph in place to feed an entire nation during a severe, seven-year famine, but God had Joseph in that place at that time to feed the world. “When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was so severe everywhere” (Gen 41:56-57). But it’s even more than that. God had Joseph in exactly that place, to bring Jacob and his 12 sons down to Egypt. To preserve this line, the line of the Savior. God brought the infant nation of Israel down to Egypt, where they would grow and multiply, where God would one day bring out the Israelites – a great nation – from Egypt and into the Promised Land.

The Lord is with you too! And it’s only when you realize this, understand what it means, and take it to heart that you will start counting the right things – that is…. If you even can count them. Not the hardship, the trials and adversities that so often worry and distract us, but the overflowing blessings from God! Trust that God will provide – even when the plan makes no sense. So great was God’s blessing in Egypt that they stopped counting the grain!

At the end of each day, as you are lying in bed, I want you to reflect on the day and count some of the blessings God has given you. As you say your prayers and bring requests, balance out those requests with thanksgiving. It may be hard at first, to find and identify these blessings in life, because we are so used to counting the wrong things. But I’m pretty confident that once you start identifying and counting your blessings, pretty soon they will be beyond measure. And it will become natural for you to see not only where you need God’s help, but also where the Lord was with you providing gifts beyond measure. His abundance will fill your heart, your mind, and even overflow from your mouth when you count the blessings.

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Fantastic Treasure and Where to Find It (August 9, 2020)

August 10, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Fantastic Treasure and Where to Find It

Matthew 13:44-52

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/TOSyy-PVsgc

 

What’s the most valuable thing in the world? I suppose there could be a lot of different answers to that question. Less than two weeks ago, Apple topped Saudi Aramco as the world’s most valuable company at $1.817 trillion. If we’re talking diamonds, the most valuable diamond in the world is – I thought it was the Hope Diamond, but that one’s in third at around $250 million – the world’s most valuable diamond is the Koh-I-Noor. The Koh-I-Noor is the largest diamond among the crown jewels valued at over $2 billion and can be seen at the Tower of London.

But what if we go a different route. I’m sure none would argue that a good family is worth more than these. There isn’t a thing a mother wouldn’t do for the safety and wellbeing of her children. What about your own life? What if you could find the fountain of youth and live forever?! Well… with how 2020 has been, let’s put it this way: What if you could find the fountain of youth and live forever in with no sadness, no pain, only joy and happiness and perfection. What would you do for that? What would you do to obtain that – to take a sip from that fountain?

That’s what Jesus was illustrating in the first two parables of this section. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Mt 13:44-46). You see two different kinds of people depicted in the parable. The one, wasn’t necessarily looking for it. He could have been a hired worker digging in a farmer’s field when his shovel clunked against a wooden box with hidden treasure. He immediately knew that this was valuable and did everything he could to obtain that treasure right then and there – selling all his possessions and buying that field. Although he valued what he previously had, he knew he would be far richer if he could just obtain this treasure.

The other is a man who was actually searching for the treasure. In fact, he was in the business. He was a pearl merchant. He knew what he wanted. He knew what to look for. And when he found it, again, he did anything it took to obtain that treasure – possibly even selling all his other pearls just for that one. Before finding these new treasures, both people no doubt valued what they previously owned. But once they saw this new treasure, see how little they valued all else.

Did you know there is a real “fountain of youth”? There is something you can drink from and live forever in perfect bliss. It’s the Lord’s supper! Jesus himself says, “Take and eat this is my body, take and drink this is my blood shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.” The forgiveness of sins is eternal life and salvation! It’s what we say after the Lord’s Supper, “This body and blood strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith until… life everlasting.”

I think we lose that excitement and awe from time to time. I think we lose that perspective on what the good news of salvation is actually worth. Nothing you own or possess or do is more important, more valuable than the treasure of the Gospel. In fact, Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mt 16:26). The answer is nothing! Even if you owned the whole world – Google, Apple, SpaceX, Ford Motor Company, entire countries, all of it – it still would not be more valuable than the Gospel – the salvation of your soul.

It’s like oxygen tanks for the diver. Or an EMU suit – astronaut suit – for the astronaut. You NEED it. To help us understand just how much we need it – just how valuable it is, Jesus goes on.

Why you need it is explained in Jesus’ next parable. “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:47-50).

There WILL be a “sorting” day. All people will be caught up in the dragnet of Judgement Day. And do you know what the requirements are to be considered a good fish? To be spared from the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 19:17-19). To clarify a little bit more on some of these, God’s Word says elsewhere, “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 Jn 3:15). And, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Simply put, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2).

Brothers and sisters, can any of us honestly say that we have been as holy as God? That we have never stolen, never hated, never lusted, always loved perfectly? Then Jesus’ words are quite clear. “The angels will come an separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:49-50).

There is… one other thing. There’s something the fishermen of Judgment Day are looking for. It’s the pearl. It’s the pearl of faith – that gift from God that connects you to the perfect, holy, righteous life of Jesus. It’s faith that acknowledges, “I have nothing good in me by which I am to be saved, but I cling to Jesus and the forgiveness he won for me as my pearl of righteousness. You could be the ugliest, mangiest, bottom feeder of a fish – certainly destined to be cast aside – but having that gift of God – the pearl of salvation – God sees Jesus when he looks at you. God takes you into his arms and spares you from the judgment.

You have found true wealth in Christ. More accurately, Christ has led you to this true wealth. Now, you have a storeroom full of treasures old and new. “’Have you understood all these things?’ Jesus asked” (Mt 13:51). Earlier that day, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people long to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Mt 13:17). “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Mt 13:16). “These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Cor 2:10). He gives the understanding.

Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt 13:52). Jesus was training his disciples not only by explaining the message of the Old Testament to them, but he also revealed new truths – he revealed to them the fulfillment of the prophecies found in him. He convinced them that the work of salvation is finished, completed, in his own death and resurrection. He spent three years with them stocking their storeroom with treasures so that they would be equipped to meet every situation – able to dispense God’s treasures to others.

You have this storeroom too. Imagine a large wine cellar in your home, fully stocked! And with the special connection you have with the owner of a vineyard, new bottles keep coming in. There’s rare, vintage wines. There’s exquisite new wines. There’s wines for every occasion. Only, we’re not talking about wine. We are talking about the truths of God’s Word! And yes, because of your special connection to God, he is stocking your storeroom. Every time you visit him in the word he is stocking your storeroom for every occasion – so that you also, when the occasion arises, can bring out of your storeroom new treasures as well as old. It might be a word of comfort after a friend has lost a loved one. “Let me tell you about where I go when I am weary and burdened.” It might be a word of encouragement for new students going off to school during uncertain times, “Take heart, God has overcome the world!” It might be the thanks and praise that rolls off your lips, “God is so good! Let me tell you about how he saved our home from disaster.”

As God stocks your storeroom with his treasures, he will also provide occasions in life to share these treasures new and old with others. Treasures so valuable that it’s worth dropping everything in life just to get it – dropping everything in life just to share it.

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Didn’t you sow good seed? (August 2, 2020)

August 2, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Didn’t you sow good seed?

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

watch livestream: https://youtu.be/OR_gN1e3yJ8

 

He got old. That young man who leaned on Jesus’ chest the night before the cross. The one who bested Peter in the early morning dash to the tomb – the first one to see the empty grave clothes and believe their silent testimony. He got old and finally slowed down. That John got old is not a remarkable fact all by itself. But consider that he was the only one of the 12 disciples to accomplish it. He endured, with a mix of crushing sadness and swelling joy to see the brutal martyrdom of most from that intimate circle of friends, and to see believers endure nonetheless.

How can that be? How can there be a good God when the world is such a bad place? Reflect on your own life – the mix of joy and sadness you’ve been through, the moments when you knew for certain that God did not exist or that his intentions were not entirely good. The problem: A God of absolute power as well as absolute goodness seems incompatible with the world we live in – a world filled with pain and death. “Lord, didn’t you so good seed? Where then did the weeds come from?” (Mt 13:27). The weeds, as later described by Jesus, being, “everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (Mt 13:41).

First, let’s take a look at the sowing of this field.

God certainly intended to have a weed-free field – to have a world filled with people who are born in his image, having the same will of God, and living in a creation that would be a blessing in every way. And that’s certainly what he sowed. When he established the world by his creating word in the beginning, “everything was very good” (Gen 1:31). Everything worked as it should. Everything was harmonious. Even mankind was created in God’s own image – having a mindset, a will, that aligned perfectly with God’s good and gracious will. Can you even imagine that?! But, we didn’t get to see that. Shortly after creation, the devil sowed weeds – sowed the seeds of evil right into the world and into the human heart.

Jesus says in his parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away” (Mt 13:24-25). To be clear on terms, the “Kingdom of heaven” is not a place – it’s not talking about that place called heaven where believers go after they die. Jesus is talking about something right now. In fact, in one place Jesus even said, the kingdom of heaven is among you (Lk 17:21). The kingdom of heaven is God’s gracious rule in human hearts and lives. Through the gospel promises of God’s word and sacraments, Jesus gives us the sure hope of heaven. That’s the kingdom of heaven!

In the world there are both Christ’s kingdom, and the devil’s kingdom of sin and darkness. God has all authority and sows only good seed in the world. But the devil sows bad seed – weeds among the wheat. So when asking, “Lord, didn’t you so good seed? Where then did the weeds come from?” (Mt 13:27). You know their source. The seeds of evil didn’t come from God. They came from the devil. Ever since the beginning there have been wheat – children of God – and weeds – children of the devil. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one live side by side in this world and may look very much alike. Yet they are entirely different.

So you know who’s sowing. Now let’s take a look at what’s growing.

The question is often asked, “Didn’t you so good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from” (Mt 13:27). Or, why is there evil if God is good? How can a good God allow such evil? Like the servants in the parable, who are the sons of the kingdom – the believers – we too are often astonished at the spread of wickedness. And what’s more perplexing is that even where the gospel has been clearly proclaimed for many years, wickedness still abounds.

Seeing this, our first reaction is to uproot the weeds – get rid of them all. And you can see this happen throughout history. How many times have believers tried to separate the wheat and weeds in the kingdom with rules or monasteries, with inquisitions or Pharisaical laws? All these were measures meant to uproot weeds or at least prevent them from corrupting good wheat. But what did it actually do? Any time it has been tried, we only succeed in ruining wheat along with the weeds. We uproot the faith of the weak who fall into sin. We trample the faith of the strong by feeding their pride. We cause more harm than good.

The servants in the parable had the same plan for action, “Do you want us to go and pull [the weeds] up?” (Mt 13:28). But they didn’t immediately go out and begin their work. First, they asked the master what he would have them do. Our Lord wants servants who are zealous to do his work, yes. But who first find out from Scripture exactly what their Lord wants them to do.

Our Lord’s answer is a resounding, “No!” (Mt 13:29). He said, “Let them grow” (Mt 13:30). But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a plan. The Lord most certainly has a plan to separate the wheat and weeds. Before the devil even carries out his wicked plans, the Lord already knows his plan – how he will use the evil for our good (Rm 8:28).

Take, for example, the true story of a man who was wrongly accused and condemned to death. Despite evidence to the contrary, a group of single-minded, evil men made up the jury that called for the death sentence. This man was killed for crimes he did not commit. Beaten and brutally killed – hung upon a cross to die. And yet, because of his death, you are forgiven of all your crimes. I’m talking, of course, about Jesus. Yes, Satan planned his evil and was allowed to carry it out. He persuaded one of Jesus’ own disciples to carry out his evil work. He incited a mob to cry out their injustices. But God meant it for good! God used the devil’s scheming at the death of Christ to be your greatest good!

How many other examples are there throughout Scripture? Examples of God using evil for his good plans. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery out of jealousy and greed. But God used this to save many thousands from a devastating famine. The apostle Paul being raised a Pharisee among Pharisees – relying on his own works, not God’s grace – and yet that knowledge and background gave him a thorough knowledge of Scriptures and customs to bring others to faith and combat Judaism.

What about in your own life? How many of you would have been uprooted if God simply destroyed the weeds as soon as their fruit appeared – destroyed you and me as soon as there was any evidence of evil thoughts and wicked actions? Oh Lord, who could stand? We all would have been pulled up and thrown into the fire.

Jesus calls the weeds, “everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (Mt 13:41). It makes sense that the weeds should be uprooted, but that was not God’s plan. Thankfully that is not God’s plan. Jesus’ answer is an unmistakable “No!” The reason the owner forbids his servants from pulling up the weeds is for the sake of the wheat. Out of love for the wheat, Jesus forbids us to cut short anyone’s time of grace. You and I were weeds once too. But allowed to remain and hear God’s Word, you are now wheat! Wheat among the weeds, growing together, yes. Suffering at times, yes. But also testifying to the truth, being wheat, and by God’s grace producing good fruit for the Savior.

As long as this present world stands, there will be both believers and unbelievers growing together in the world. But this situation will not continue forever. The harvest is coming. Now it seems that the wicked are prospering and flourishing. But the Lord points us ahead to the harvest, when believers and unbelievers will be separated. All temptation from our sinful flesh will be put to an end. All believers will be gathered into the Lord’s house forever. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43).

Didn’t you sow good seed? Yes, and by God’s grace you are one of them! Sown by God, growing strong and healthy in him, and one day he will mow you up into his arms. That’s certain!

Give to others this perspective you have – that even when life is not all roses and sunshine – when there are thorns and weeds, share how your good God can turn even the darkest moments in life to lifechanging moments for good! Because there is also a questioning that arises not from unbelief but from faith. It is precisely the fact that you know he is good, and you know he sowed good seed, and you know he is love that your soul cries out, “Then why, dear Lord?!” And the answer he gives reaches beyond the realm of words and ideas. He gives his very self for you. Gives himself so that weeds may become wheat.

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How to make a Christian? (July 26, 2020)

July 28, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

How to make a Christian

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Watch livestream: https://youtu.be/UaQSpkV4bvo

 

How do you make a Christian? What do you do? Maybe I’ll restate that just a little bit. How is a Christian made? Because that’s what we are all here for, right? It’s what Jesus told us to do in the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So how do you do it? Well, Jesus tells you how in that very same sentence, “Baptizing them… and teaching them everything” (Mt 28:19-20). I’m going to phrase it a little differently. I’m going to use Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 3(:6), because it better parallels the parable we are looking at today, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God makes it grow”.

How has that been going? Are you vigorously planting those Gospel Seeds every day and everywhere? Or have your sowing arms grown tired and weary? Have you mostly given up on sowing that seed?

I’ve seen a pattern that repeats throughout my life. After big life changes – graduation, ordination, moving – I’m diligently and excitedly sowing that seed. Or I attend a mission seminar – while I was in school we had these “Mission and Ministry” days once a year. Now it’s Pastor’s conferences, Mission Fest Sundays, or Women’s Rallies that get me all fired up and excited about sowing the Gospel Seeds! But what happens after a few weeks? You probably know. You’ve probably experienced the same thing. You sow those seeds in the days following that mission rally. You get to know your neighbors and speak freely about your faith just after moving in. And then you wait and watch expectantly for that seed to sprout. You look around in church on Sunday expecting to see that person you invited. Or you look forward to the questions your neighbor will come back with, wanting to know more about your faith. But as the days turn into weeks, and weeks soon turn into months with still no evidence of those seeds sprouting, you perhaps get discouraged. I know I do. Your excitement fades. Your zeal flickers. Your sowing arm gets tired and soon just hangs by your side. I know there are times that I wonder, “What’s the point? What’s the use? These seeds are never going to grow. Nothing I plant ever sprouts.” And so you leave those Gospel Seeds in your bag, and save them for… more fertile soil???

Let me ask you: What if God appeared to you tonight, as he did to Paul, and said, “Keep on speaking, do not be silent. I am with you. I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10)? What stands out to you in those words? First, God’s command to “Keep on speaking, do not be silent” jumped out. For Paul, this was spoken at a time when people weren’t just apathetic, they opposed Paul and became abusive! And God said, “Keep on speaking!” Why? What’s the point? God continues, “I have many people in this city.” In context, God was speaking specifically about Corinth. But what about Temple? Do the same words apply? Does God have many people in this city or are we it? Are the Christian churches here in Temple all that there is and there will never be a new person to come to faith? God’s statement remains true! “I have many people in this city.” And since you and I will never know how many still need to be reached, we must simply follow God’s command to keep on speaking! Do not be silent! God promises, “I am with you.”

In the parable of the sower, that we are focusing on today, I’ve always been a little disappointed by how little ink is spent on the seed that fell on good soil. It’s barely two verses, compared to the eight verses spent on the seeds that did not take root, or died shortly thereafter. And hardly anything more is said in the explanation of the parable than what was said in the first place. “It produced a crop… [it] refers to someone who hears the word and understands it…. [it] yields a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown” (Mt 13:8, 23). Come on, Jesus, couldn’t you be a little more inspiring?! A little more uplifting?! Spend a little more time on it and tell us how productive we are going to be as we spread Gospel Seeds and see them sprout, thrive, and flourish?!

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Whereas we tend to focus on the results – how many seeds sprout and grow and flourish – Jesus says, don’t worry about that. Scatter the seed of the Gospel to all with no regard for where it might land, or whether or not it will sprout. In fact, Jesus gives us an indication of just what we will find when we do scatter seed with how much ink he spends on each result. Most of what you cast will bear no fruit. Don’t worry about that. Scatter the seed of the Gospel with no regards to what it will bear. The word will be received in my different ways, but how it is received is not your concern. That it’s received is your concern.

As you scatter seed, you are going to see it opposed by the sinful nature, and by Satan, and by the fallen world we live in. As you scatter seed, you are going to see the Gospel promise snatched away from apathetic or misunderstanding hearts before it even has a chance to grow roots. As you scatter seed, you are going to see newborn faith choked out by the busyness of the world or scorched by the heat of persecution. As you scatter seed, you are going to see that most of it never bears fruit that lasts.

And if this is what you focus on, then your sowing arm is going to get tired really quickly. Your excitement to plant new Gospel seeds is going to fade quickly. You may even stop trying altogether if you are primarily concerned with how many of the seeds you plant sprout and flourish. You may forget, or doubt the words of Jesus when he says, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Gospel seeds are no good when they remain in the sower’s bag. A farmer’s seeds are guaranteed to do nothing when they sit in the hopper.

I think another of Jesus’ parables applies here. A master left his servants with an amount of money to use while he was gone. The first two put it to use and earned a return. The third servant hid his away and didn’t use it. The master commanded, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas… I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Lk 19:24,26).

 

It’s all about a shift in perspective. I’ve always heard and known, “Don’t focus on the outcome. Focus on doing the work.” But every time I’d find myself anxiously waiting for those VBS registrations to come in. Or waiting with bated breath for someone new to walk in on Sunday. Because we always want to quantify something. So, I’ll never forget the encouragement from our presenter from Praise and Proclaim Ministries a couple years back: “Count gospel seeds. Count seeds planted.” Faithfully plant the seeds of God’s Word, rejoice that Gospel Seeds are going out! And leave the rest up to God. You sow. God makes it grow.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

 

What do you do with Gospel Seeds? Sow them! God makes them grow! He will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it.

I know it isn’t always easy. I know it’s hard not to focus on results and grow weary of casting Gospel Seeds while there’s seemingly no return. Leave that up to God. Because even the hardest packed hearts can be softened by God’s Word. How many of us were once that hard-packed path? Even rocky hearts or lives filled with choking weeds can be overcome and cultivated by God’s Word. How many of us have gone through those times in life and been brought back by seeds that were sown in our hearts? God’s Law gets things ready, crushing rocks of pride and cutting off the thorns of life that entangle us. Then, the gospel seed – packed with the power of God for salvation – tells of a love so great. A saving love that penetrates our hearts and gives birth to faith and trust.

There’s one other thing, as well, that can be very difficult to do. It can be very difficult to divide up the sowers, and send some to a new field – like Trinity is working toward as we send some sowers to focus their efforts on the Waco area. That’s tough. We miss our friends. The work remains but the workers are divided – do we have enough remaining here? It’s in God’s hands. Our mission is making disciples. Our mission is sowing Gospel seeds upon whatever soil is in our reach. And sometimes that means looking up from the one corner of the field we have been working on and seeing that there is more within our reach. You sow. God makes it grow.

Although it’s not to be our main concern, God does comfort us in our tireless efforts by revealing what these seeds can do when they do land on good soil. It takes root. It bears fruit! And do you know what’s in fruit? More seeds! “The seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown” (Mt 13:23).

That’s the really neat thing about seeds. One seed can produce hundreds more! Ralph Emerson, a famous American essayist and philosopher, once said, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” It’s the same thing that God says through Isaiah. As rain waters the earth so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty” (Is 55:10-11). Even though the seeds that fall on good soil are in the small minority, those seeds that do take root flourish and multiply! There’s nothing lost in sowing Gospel Seeds. Nothing lost in dividing up workers throughout the harvest field. Only seeds that sprout, flourish, bear fruit, and multiply what once was sown.

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A promise is a promise (July 19, 2020)

July 22, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

A promise is a promise

Exodus 33:12-23

 

Last week we read about a very harsh event in the book of Exodus. As a quick refresher, God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. They had escaped across the Red Sea from Pharaoh’s army. Then, encamped in the wilderness, God called Moses to Mt. Sinai to give him instructions and promises to share with the Israelites – God’s chosen nation. While Moses was up there, the people made a golden calf and worshiped it as their god. When Moses came back down and saw this, he threw the tablets to the ground, breaking them, and called those who are still for the LORD to come to him. The Levites came to Moses’ side and were instructed to “go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor” (Ex 32:27).

It seems that the Israelites’ complaint against God was true. Before God miraculously provided manna and quail for them to eat, they grumbled, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Ex 16:3). It seems that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt so that he could kill them off in a variety of ways! What’s going on here?! What is God doing?!

It’s a question I actually hear pretty often given our current situation. Times when the pandemic continues to spread. Times when businesses remain closed or must close once again. Times when schools are deliberating over whether to open and the best practices if they do open. What is God doing? Is this a wake-up call? Has he left us because of our unbelief and unrepentance?

With the unsettling account we read last week – where God really did condemn a number of Israelites because of their sinful idolatry. With a similar progression we see in a number of places from Scripture – throughout the book of Judges, a repeating cycle of sin, oppression, repentance, and deliverance – a similar cycle we see during the time of the kings – we can’t help but worry and fret and live our lives anxiously wondering, “Is God doing the same thing now? Have we gone so far astray that God is handing us over to oppression and destruction? How bad is it going to get?”

God does punish sin. Make no mistake about it. In very clear words God does tell us that he punishes sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ez 18:20). There’s no categories of sin here. There’s no ranking or tiers of punishment. Nothing like: these kind of sins deserve a slap on the wrist; these deserve famine and plague; and these deserve immediate death. No! “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). And that’s very sobering news for me and for you. There isn’t a one of us who is spotless and clean. There isn’t a one of us who could, on our own, stand before God righteous and holy. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). In other words, yes, each one of us deserves punishment for our own sins. And, at times, nations have become so corrupted with sin that God decided it was time for a stern wake-up call.

So, what are you going to do? Are you going to worry and fret over the news that comes in every day? Are you going to suffer great anxiety over every new spike in the virus? Are you going to wonder or even despair if God really cares about you anymore? Wonder if we are simply swept into destruction with the rest because of the ungodliness of our nation and of our own hearts? What are you going to do?

There’s a hymn verse that kept coming to mind this week every time I thought about this reading. And oh how true it is. I’m going to start it halfway through the verse: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh, what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!” (CW 411). So, I’ll ask you once again, what are you going to do? I’m not going to do anything, but I’m going to remind God of what he has done for me! Because a promise is a promise – especially when it comes from God.

That’s exactly what Moses did when he approached God after the unsettling events that had just happened – blatant idolatry and swift judgment. The Israelites had just made a covenant with the Lord just days before: “Everything the LORD has said we will do” (Ex 24:3). And yet they quickly broke that covenant and worshiped an idol. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, who you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt… They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Ex 32:7,9). As an intercessor between God and the Israelites, Moses didn’t despair or worry. He simply relied on God’s promises and brought them before the Lord.

“These are not my people,” Moses said. “Remember that this nation is your people” (Ex 33:13), he reminded God. “You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me’” (Ex 33:12). “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us?” (Ex 33:15-16). And, in hearing this petition, the LORD replied, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14).

A promise is a promise – especially when it comes from God. What Moses did here is so important in any believer’s life. It’s a pattern for living that we should follow every day. He prayed God’s promises back to him. A fellow pastor calls it, “tickling God’s ears with his promises.” To be able to do this, however, you of course need to know God’s promises. So, there’s 2 things that Moses did, and it’s the same 2 things I call each one of you to do as well. 1) Listen constantly. 2) Pray confidently.

Listen constantly to God’s Word. How are you going to know his promises if you never take the time to hear them? How are you going to remember his promises if you don’t hear them repeatedly? How are you going to pray God’s promises back to him if you don’t know them? Listening constantly is something that God urges throughout Scripture and I think is really highlighted here. Because when Moses asks, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33:18), what is it that God says he will do? “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex 33:20), but, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will PROCLAIM MY NAME, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex 33:19).

People often long to experience God in a deep and personal way. They look for “faith experiences” to bolster their faith and trust in God. They want to experience God in a deeper way – and it’s the same thing that Moses requested here. But that’s not what God gives him. That’s not primarily what God gives him. The focus is on God proclaiming his name, “the LORD” (in all caps).

And you and I might be thinking, that’s kind of strange and meaningless. Moses already knew what to call God. What’s the point of proclaiming his name? Well, this is much more than simply saying a name. This is much more than knowing the sounds your mouth has to make to address God. It’s maybe not as much anymore as it was in the past, but a person’s name is who they are – their reputation. Think back to the days when a good name and a handshake is all it took to make a binding contract, a promise. That’s what God is doing here. By proclaiming his name, he is restating his promises.

That name, “the LORD” in all caps – in Hebrew it’s “Yahweh” – that name means, the God of free and faithful love. Essentially, God was telling Moses, “Remember, my love is not contingent upon your actions. I am love. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. I am the God of free love. And remember, my love is not contingent upon a covenant that you keep with me. My love is contingent upon the covenant, the promise, I have made with you. I am the God of faithful, enduring love.”

We have a symbol, a reminder, of that covenant that God made and kept right here in the front of church. It’s the cross. Whenever you see the cross remember God’s promise, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). But don’t let that be all. Listen constantly to the Word. It’s full of his promises! Be in it all the time. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). We rest in God’s promises. See the cross of Christ – the promise of forgiveness – written on every page in all it’s beauty and intricacy. And do this often so that you can pray these promises back to God – especially in distressing times. Do this often so that you can rely on the promises of God and live confidently no matter what happens in life, because a promise is a promise – especially when it comes from God. Make this such a part of your life – listening constantly and praying confidently – that your friends, neighbors and relatives know exactly where you go to find rest in such troubling times.

 

2  Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged-Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness-Take it to the Lord in prayer.

3  Are we weak and heavy laden, Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge-Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In his arms he’ll take and shield you; You will find a solace there.

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Is Christ a Contradiction? (July 12, 2020)

July 22, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Is Christ a Contradiction?

Matthew 10:34-42

 

I think some of my favorite words in Scripture are from the Christmas account in Luke 2. Words I’ve been reciting since I was very young during school Christmas programs.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Lk 2:8-14).

And yet… once Jesus grows up and enters his earthly ministry, it seems he has a very different message. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). Something doesn’t quite add up here. Is Christ contradicting himself? I mean, Jesus, when you were born the angels rang out a message of peace. Your prophets proclaimed peace. You often preached about peace. How can you at the same time say, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth” (Mt 10:34)?

Peace is a common theme in Scripture. People long for it. People work for it. God promises it. And yet, looking around there is often anything but peace. I see dissatisfaction with leaders and authorities. I see protesting and rioting. I see vehement disagreements and arguments between people. Where is this peace that God promised? Some think they will find it if they can just elect the perfect leader or have the right authorities in place. Some think they will finally have it when they convince the world to their perspective. Some are struggling and striving to achieve peace on earth but they will not find it in the things they turn to or the ways they are going about it. They are looking for a peace that only God can give. Really, they are looking for God. But looking for him in all the wrong things and in all the wrong ways. They are looking for the peace that only God can give, but don’t understand just how God gives such peace.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). We should expect to see division instead of harmony and hatred instead of friendship because Jesus brought a sword upon the earth. The Word of God is the “Sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). And because there will never be a general conversion of all people, that sword of God’s Word is going to divide people. “A man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Mt 10:35-36). Many believed that when the Messiah would come, he would bring an end to earthly wars and thus establish an earthly peace. But Jesus tells his disciples not to subscribe to the common belief. Do not think that he came to impose such a peace on earth. That’s not at all his number one priority. God’s number one priority is to save sinners. Unfortunately, many reject this gospel. Therefore, we should expect to see division instead of harmony, and hatred instead of friendship. Family against family as the sinful world turns against Christian.

Jesus asks a very hard thing in these next words. Can you do the hard thing and face the conflict that the sword of the Spirit brings? “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37-38). These are strong words. They convict us all. We must confess, “I am unworthy.” And if you don’t think so, take another look at the first reading from today.

The reading from Exodus 32 is a hard pill to swallow. In fact, for that reason I almost chose a different reading for this Sunday. We want God and Jesus and all of Scripture to look kind, loving, accepting, and welcoming. And here, it seems, you get anything but that! Who would want to be part of a group where some took swords, went back and forth through the camp and killed brother and friend and neighbor (Ex 32:27)? Who would want to follow a God that could possibly command such a thing? It’s striking and repulsive… until you spend some time reflecting on it and seeing the reason. See the reason why God could possibly command such a thing. Why Jesus did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Put simply: God doesn’t share. God will not share you with any other false god. And this is a good thing! I have an illustration of why this is a good thing from my recent trip. In our home, we have a little handheld fan that’s powered by a little crank. When you get it going, it puts out a pretty good breeze. But what makes it so special and valuable is not the reason you might think here in Texas. It’s so special and valuable to our family at meal time because rather than my wife and me blowing on three different plates to cool down hot food until we are lightheaded – parents will understand – we can simply crank this fan a few times to cool down the food with no lightheaded side effects!

Well, on our trip, one of my nephews saw the fan and thought it was pretty cool, so I shared. I let him play with it knowing full well that I might not get it back in the same condition. And… sure enough… after sharing, I received it back broken and in pieces.

That’s what happens when you try to force God to share you with other gods. For the Israelites it was blatant idolatry. Follow that path to its conclusion and it’s pretty easy to see where it would lead if God did not take such drastic measures to cut off the infestation of idols and preserve his true people – believers. They would no longer be a godly nation. The promise of the Messiah would not have been passed down from generation to generation. In fact, the true God probably would not have given the Promised Land to his people turned idolaters. They would have all perished in the wilderness. Every single one of them. So his drastic action, was actually a loving action for those who loved God above all things.

For some it’s lust. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Are you trying to force God to share that temple with more than one partner – someone who is not your spouse? For others it’s greed. Do you serve God or money? And still others it’s substance abuse. You cannot serve two masters. Follow those to their conclusions and it’s not a pretty picture. These are not paths that lead to God but away from him. These are not paths of peace and joy, but paths that lead to suffering and eternal condemnation. Even things as seemingly innocent soft-pedaling sin for the sake of appearing loving, or proclaiming peace with God even when there is no peace. When it comes to such choices how often do we, sinfully weak people, prefer the path of least resistance. Not loving God above all things. Forcing God to share us with all the things we have idolized. “Whoever finds their life” in such temporary treasures, “will lose it” eternally (Mt 10:39).

But, “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). Jesus did not come to bring peace, but a sword. This Sword is God’s Word, the “Sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). Wherever the Word of God is preached, there believers will be found, even breaking the curse of unbelieving generations and carving out believers from families that had previously lived in unbelief. “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

A true prophet of God knows this. A true prophet is not concerned with being welcomed and loved by the masses, but only proclaiming the truth of God’s Word and letting God achieve his purposes. It’s easy to be welcomed by the masses – to be friends of many. Just speak the message of the false prophets: “Peace, peace!” Peace with God and peace with one another! Just quiet the condemning conscience and soft-pedal sin. Just accept any belief so long as people are sincere. You will be welcomed and loved by many! But you will cut yourself off from God, and your peace will be short lived.

God’s spokesmen are to represent the Savior, not popular opinion. When God’s spokesmen speak God’s message, people who welcome them welcome Jesus. They are willing to listen to the Words of God spoken by his prophets and apostles, pastors and teachers. “Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophets reward…” (Mt 10:40-41). God makes special promises to the faithful hearers of God’s spokesman. They will share in the blessings of eternal life and all the rewards of grace God has prepared for those who love him. “They will certainly not lose their reward” (Mt 10:42).

The last hours are always the hardest. The last hours of a trip are always the hardest. Whether you are almost at your destination or you are almost back to the comfort of your home. This past Thursday was the last leg of our journey back home from visiting family. Crossing the Texas border was exciting! After a couple days of driving already and several hours driven already that morning we were really looking forward to getting back home and relaxing. Upon crossing the border, I checked the GPS expecting just a short hop home…. Still 3 hours to go… and there’s construction ahead in both Dallas and Waco. Those were some tough hours – squeezing between semis and construction barriers, sitting in Dallas traffic, and fighting boredom in the miles between. But we were almost there! Very soon, it would all be worth it! Very soon we could pull into the drive, unload, wash up, and relax!

Brothers and sisters, we are in the last hours. Very soon we will be at our final destination of heaven! But we aren’t there yet. We are in the last hours – and the last hours are always the hardest. In fact, Jesus promised just that. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn 15:20). “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”… “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Mt 10:34,36). But take heart, because if you lose your life for the sake of Christ – whether it’s physically losing your life, giving up health and wealth, or bearing whatever crosses you face on a daily basis – “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). Welcoming God’s prophets, welcoming a righteous person, welcoming the message of Christ our Savior, the Prince of true, lasting Peace, welcoming the Word of God that Sword of the Spirit, despite the divisions it may cause, “truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Mt 10:42).

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