Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

He Checked ‘Yes’! (November 11, 2018)

November 12, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

He Checked ‘Yes’!

John 5:19-30

Have you ever been left wondering what someone thinks about you? Whether you know someone well or not, there can be times when you are left wondering. I can remember wondering a lot during my pastoral internship year, my vicar year. I worked with a Pastor who often had a stern look on his face no matter how he felt. And there were often days when I went in to work and I just wasn’t sure if he was disappointed, upset, or what. Of course, as a young vicar, I was rightly being critiqued and tested by him. I always dreaded his sharp inhale [example]. Panic would course through me… “Did I say something wrong?” “Did I mess up?” “What is he critiquing…. Or is he just breathing?”

When you were a kid, there was a surefire method to get your answer. No ambiguity. No being left in the dark. No more wondering. You probably know this method. It was a simple note that read, “Do you like me? Check ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” And then of course, it had to be anonymous who was asking, so you had your best friend deliver the note, and then you got your answer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could write those notes today? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could write one of those notes to God? “Do you like me, God? Am I good enough for you?” Without even us writing that note, we’ve had others who have gone before us and asked just that question in a variety of different ways.

It was often said by the Jews living in Jesus’ day that they knew what God thought of them already because they were God’s chosen nation – children of Abraham! But when some of these very people gathered to see John the Baptist, he called them a “brood of vipers!” “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?… And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’… The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:7-10). You may have not used that phrase before, but have you ever boasted in being a Lutheran? I think every one of us has. Just last week we celebrated the Reformation and took great pride in being “children of the Reformation”! And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Just like John wasn’t saying that being a child of Abraham, in itself, was a bad thing. The point of condemnation is when we make a claim like that, saying “I’m a Lutheran!” or “I’m a Christian!” but yet our actions prove us to be liars! So although we haven’t passed a note to God asking, “Do you like me, since I’m a Lutheran?” he’s definitely sent word back, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:10).

There was once a man who approached Jesus to ask about this very thing – producing good fruit. He was pretty proud of his actions too – his fruit. And so he asked Jesus, “Do you approve of me?” He said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 18:18). Jesus responded by listing some of the commandments, to which the man proudly held out his basket of “fruit.” “All these I have kept since I was a boy” (Lk 18:21). Have you ever done that – looked at your basket of fruit and felt pretty proud? Do you take the commandments seriously, as God intends, and feel pretty content about how your basket of fruit – your actions – stacks up against the baskets of those around you? Have you felt secure in your faith based on your obedience to God’s will?

I guess God does say he wants us to be judging – but it’s not other’s whom we are supposed to judge. “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16), the Bible says. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mt 26:41). And if we really want to do some comparing, it’s not anyone else that we are to compare ourselves to except God himself. “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). Holy means “set apart.” Set apart from the world in regards to sin and guilt. But none of us could ever do that. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jas 2:10). Have you stumbled at even one point of the law? Have you harbored one moment of hate? Have you cast a lustful glance? Have you coveted – thinking that your life would be better if you had that one thing your friend has? Every one of us is guilty of breaking the law. “There is no difference… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23).

Do you know what “falling short” looks like? The Grand Canyon, at its widest point, rim to rim, spans a distance of 18 miles. At its narrowest point, the two rims still span a distance of 600 ft. Imagine this, God’s only command is to jump across the Grand Canyon. If you can do that, you’ve kept his commands. How far would you make it across? You could probably jump farther than a turtle, or many other creatures. You might be able to jump farther than any person in this room. But you would still fall short. A man named Mike Powell currently holds the world record for long jump at 29ft 4.25in. He can out jump any person on the planet. Would he be able to keep God’s command and jump across? He too, would fall short. God doesn’t move the boundaries of his law. It does not bend or stretch to allow any leeway. And God has a very specific punishment for those who fall short; for those who sin and do evil. We actually get a very gruesome picture in the reading from Malachi of what will happen to evildoers like us on the last day. “Every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire” (Mal 4). So if we are asking what God thinks of us – if we passed him a note that said “Do you like me? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’” he’s been quite clear in his letter to us. “Those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (Jn 5:29).

God’s verdict is in. The Judge knows your sin and has been pretty clear about what sin deserves. But the judge also knows your Savior.

The Judge knows your Savior and he knows what your Savior did for you. The Judge knows that your Savior didn’t want you to be condemned as a sinner. In fact, the thought of losing you was so heart-wrenching to your Savior that he put his own life on the line. Just as he did here in the reading, where Jesus risked being ridiculed by the Pharisees because he wanted to help a lame man on the Sabbath, so he gave himself for you even though it meant dying on the cross. On the cross, Jesus took all the sins of the world onto himself. The Bible actually says, “He became sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). You can think of those filters you have for the water from your refrigerator. Those filters use carbon, not actually to filter out and get rid of contaminants, but to absorb contaminants out of the water. That’s why they have to be replaced every so often – because they reach their limit of what they can absorb. Well, in this way, Christ absorbed the sin of the world into himself and then faced the judgment for sin we just talked about. As he suffered condemnation, separated from God’s presence on the cross, you could say that he was the worst sinner who ever lived because he absorbed the sins of the whole world – suffering the full punishment for every sin in that moment.

The Judge knows all of this. The Judge knows your Savior and knows what he did. What does that have to do with your verdict? How much influence does that have on whether God checks “yes” or “no”? Like that little child who passes the note and anxiously waits for a response, are you at times anxious about what God thinks of you? My sins are not hidden from God, but he says they are forgiven. He paid for all sin, yet I still commit more every day. What will the Judge say?

Do you know who the Judge is? Look at verse 22. “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (Jn 5:22). The judge knows your Savior because the Judge IS your Savior. The judge knows how much your Savior loves you and knows exactly what your Savior did to save you because the Judge IS your Savior. So on the Last Day, when you stand before your Judge, do you have to wonder about what he is going to say? Will Jesus forget about the love that moved him to take on flesh? Will Jesus forget about the cross upon which he fully paid for all your sins? Of course not. Jesus, your Judge, has already declared you innocent and holy. Does God accept me? You have your answer right here. He checked “yes!”

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Signs of Hope (November 4, 2018) – Reformation

November 6, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Signs of Hope

Mark 13:5-11

Often, in Sunday morning Bible class when I ask for prayer requests, we pray for people who have been tragically affected by terrible events. Forces of nature destroying livelihoods. Nations in upheaval. Individuals gunning down others. These times we live in are often scary! And in Bible class, when we bring up these kinds of things to pray for, we often say, “The end must be coming soon. How much worse can it get?”

What does the end mean to you? Is it a time of joy and excitement? Or is it a time of darkness and despair? When we listen to Jesus explain the end time, it certainly sounds scary. “Watch out that no one deceives you” (Mk 13:5). “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines” (Mk 13:8). “Be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues” (Mk 13:9). If you read a little farther, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me” (Mk 13:12-13). The end times certainly sound like a harsh and frightening time to live in.

Are we there yet? That’s often a question I hear. How near do you think we are to Jesus’ return? We look ahead to that moment and long for the day when the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll and the angels will raise us up and gather all those who believe to be with Jesus! We look forward to that day of hope wondering, is it soon? Well, let’s take a look at the signs. “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many” (Mk 13:6). Have we seen false messiahs? Galilee was actually famous as a haven for such false messiahs. But only one fit the bill exactly. And he will return, just as he said, but obviously none in Galilee claiming to be him was the true Messiah. We have a variety of different types of false Messiahs today. There are individuals like Charles Manson and Rev. Moon who both claimed to be the Messiah ushering in the end of times. There are also cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, which claim to teach the real truths about Jesus contrary to what the Bible says. Finally, a false Messiah could even be a philosophy that seeks to replace Christ. In this sense it would be an “anti-christ” – taking the place of Christ. Evolution seeks to do that by eliminating the need for a Creator God entirely. Humanism seeks to do that by attaching prime importance to the human rather than the divine, saying that humans have the potential for goodness and salvation. And the truly sad part is that so many souls are eternally lost. That’s why Jesus warns us to watch out!

Another sign of the end is “wars and rumors of wars… Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Mk 13:7-8). I could point to any number of wars that would show this sign of the end is already taking place. A couple major ones, however, would include the World Wars, and the Cold War – when the whole planet was in upheaval or terrified that we would blow ourselves off the face of the planet. Finally, certain natural disasters are also mentioned as signs of the end. “There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines” (Mk 13:8). Do a simple google search and you can very quickly find websites listing famines and earthquakes dating back to when such events started being recorded. I even found a webpage listing “10 Terrible Famines in History.” The death toll in each of those is staggering!

And what’s the point of all of this? Why must these things take place? Why does Jesus tell us that these things will happen before the end? Is it to make us terrified? Is it to make us scared to venture out when we see the world at its worst? Is it to persuade us to faithfulness using fear tactics?! Not at all. Jesus tells you, “These are the beginning of birth pains” (Mk 13:8). So I’ll ask you, what are birth pain? Are they good or bad? Exciting, or terrifying? I’ve heard they are very painful. I’ve heard they are not fun to go through. My wife even says that women who have more than one child are especially brave because they already know the feeling. But after 9 months of pregnancy, uncomfortable sleeping, and difficulty doing everyday tasks like putting on shoes, the painful signs of birth also signify something exciting and wondrous! New life! Finally that little baby that you’ve been eagerly expecting will be in your arms in a short while. The occasion, though painful is an exciting one!

No wonder Jesus says that we should not be alarmed by such signs – terrible to endure as they are. These are the signs of new life! These are the signs not of an ending, but of a new beginning! You’ve been eagerly awaiting Christ’s return and your new life for a long time! The signs of the end time are to serve as encouragement that Jesus will come to give you new life, just as he said he would. Moreover, Jesus says, “Such things must happen” (Mk 13:7). These false prophets, wars, and natural disasters are not at all signs that God is losing his control. “These things must happen” reminds us that God has a hand on it. As we see these signs of the end fulfilling prophecy again and again we are reminded that Jesus said this would happen. Jesus said these things must happen. And as we see these signs, we are assured all the more that he will come, just as he said he would.

Jesus says it once again, “Be on your guard” (Mk 13:9). So he says, “Watch out” (Mk 13:5) for the signs of the end. It will seem like the world is at its worst, but really these are signs of anticipation and the end! Then he goes on to say, “Be on your guard!” These things won’t just be happening around you, they will be happening to you as well.

Be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them” (Mk 13:9). Again, this doesn’t sound like a sign of hope. This doesn’t sound like something pleasant at all. And it’s coming. If it hasn’t happened to you already, its coming. Already, for our young people, they are facing this in college, high school, even middle school. Right now in catechism we are working our way through an apologetics course – that is, learning to defend your faith when others challenge you. We’ve talked about what to say when someone confronts you, asking, “Prove to me there is a God!” Or, “How can a ‘good’ God allow so much evil in the world.” And my catechism students, 8th graders, are facing some of these questions already. Yes, we find our proof in the Bible, but what if those putting you on trial don’t accept the Bible as proof? How do you disarm their attack so that they are more willing to listen to what you believe and might even start to consider what the Bible says? I actually presented on this at a recent Pastors’ Conference, and a fellow pastor actually commented that some university professors make it their goal to convince any Christians in their class that there is no God. “You must be on your guard” (Mk 13:9) Jesus said, because they will come to attack you with well thought out arguments. You must have a firm handle on God’s Word, because others will come to strip you of your beliefs.

When it was becoming too hard to deny that Jesus is who he says he is, the Jewish leaders had to get rid of him. He was thrown out of his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. They handed him over to the local council – the Sanhedrin. They had him stand before Herod and Pilate, governors and kings, to be sentenced to death. He endured being mistreated, mocked, flogged, and when his strength was all but gone, they forced him to carry his own cross to the place where he would be hung upon it to die. It was a dark time. So dark in fact that many of the disciples fled, hid behind locked doors, and were confused over what Jesus had taught them and what they believed.

But when it appeared that Jesus was at his darkest hour, God was actually working his best. He was bringing about the salvation of all people, tearing down the curtain of sin that separates us from God. He was paying the price to set you free! Praise be to God for this dark time. It has become our sign of hope!

A hammer could be heard driving the nails, in a different part of the world, at a different time. A man took his stand against the hypocrisy and errors he saw within the church. What hung with nails this time were 95 theses – statements which he believed the church had incorrectly. And Martin Luther’s intention was merely to bring the church back to God’s Word, to reform the church. But when he was summoned before a local council at the Diet of Worms, when he stood before governors, the local princes, and kings, the Holy Roman Emperor – Charles V, himself – it became clear that there would be no peaceful reformation. The church intended to shut him out and get rid of him. Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic – along with anyone who upheld his cause. On his way home, despite being promised safe passage, Martin Luther was kidnapped.

It was a dark time in Martin Luther’s life. It appeared that there would be no civil debate concerning God’s Word. People were out to get him, threatening his life. What was he even doing trying to go up against the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church? Yet in this dark time, God was actually working his best. It wasn’t enemies who kidnapped Martin Luther on his way home from the Diet. It was friends who took him to safety at the Wartburg, where Martin Luther would translate the New Testament into the common German language – making God’s Word accessible to many more. Moreover, God was preserving the purity of his Word from error and false prophets.

You see a pattern here, don’t you. Some of God’s best work is brought about through dark times. And make sure you understand that correctly. It’s God’s best work, not your best work. Jesus said, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk 13:11). Martin Luther showed that to be true when he said, “I did nothing. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. The Word did everything.”

So brothers and sisters, you have nothing to fear! Do you see the world getting worse? Do you see false prophets and false Christs? Are you confronted by your peers, or worried that very soon the authorities might put you on trial? Do not worry. “These things must happen” (Mk 13:7) and God is in control. “These are the beginning of birth pains” (Mk 13:8), signs of hope that Jesus is coming! But before that happens, “the gospel must be preached to all nations” (Mk 13:10). That’s what we are to focus on in these last days. Let us go forward using our time and talents, whatever the situation, to share the gospel! And do not worry about what to say. Because of dark times that have come already, you have the pure gospel! Because of dark times you face now, you may have opportunities to witness. What great thing will God do through you?

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The Proof is NOT in the Pudding (October 28, 2018)

October 29, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

The Proof is NOT in the Pudding

Acts 2:22-32

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the proof is in the pudding.” Maybe you’ve used it from time to time. But did you know, that’s not the whole phrase? It’s actually a very old proverb that dates back at least to the 14th century. It was shortened in the early 1900s to the phrase we have today. But the longer form of this proverb is actually, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Basically, it’s saying, you can only call something a success after you have tried it or used it. For example, “Hey, I’ve heard that new doodad isn’t that great.” “Really, you should try it! I actually really like it!” Only after trying something can you speak knowledgeably about it.

This same concept is used by many to refute the teachings of the Bible and the hope that it gives. This really pertains to the teaching of life after death. “How do you really know there is life after death if you’ve never seen the other side with your own eyes?” They demand proof. Not just a fluttering hope or an inkling of faith. But solid, concrete proof. And what do you do? What kind of proof is there to offer them? Certainly, you are not going to kill yourself and hope that God would bring you back, so you can talk about it. We’ve heard of something like this in the account of the rich man and poor Lazarus. The rich man, after he had died, begged that Lazarus be raised from the dead as proof to his 5 brothers of an afterlife (Lk 16:27-28) – keep in mind, this is a different Lazarus than the one that Jesus did raise from the dead. In this instance, Lazarus was not brought back. There was not proof to offer. So what can you do? What kind of proof can you offer such a person who is obstinate and won’t even listen to a word of the gospel?

First, you could point to the many miracles surrounding the accounts of Jesus. In fact, this is the very reason Jesus did miracles, to prove who he was. Peter said it this way, “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22). There was no denying it. Even Jesus’ enemies couldn’t discredit the miracles that Jesus did. There were times when his enemies were racking their brains trying to figure out how they could get around the clear miracles, and yet deny Jesus’ deity. The very purpose of the miracles Jesus did was to give undeniable proof that he was who he said he was.

And did you know that there are different words used for the miracles that Jesus did? Sometimes they are called miracles. Sometimes they are called wonders, and other times signs. It isn’t necessarily to categorize different kinds of miracles, but each of these words emphasizes a different purpose for Jesus’ miracles. And here, Peter uses all three terms. “Accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22). “Miracles” emphasizes that they are works of supernatural power. Things that break the laws of nature. “Wonders” emphasizes that they create wonder and amazement – grabbing people’s attention saying, “Look, see this man, pay attention to him!” “Signs” emphasizes that these works have some heavenly, divine significance; namely, pointing to Jesus as the Christ. No honest Jew could deny what Jesus had done, proving his divine power and authority. Proving that he was the Christ who would bring life and salvation. In fact, not that we need the added proof, but there are even accounts outside of the Bible that talk about the wondrous things that Jesus did, and the unexplainable devotion to this Jesus, even after his death.

One of the miracles, not to miss, is the very fact that the Apostle Peter is saying all of this. Do you remember where Acts chapter 2 falls? When it happened? Usually we use this as an Easter text because of the subject matter. Just a few weeks before, Peter was too afraid to admit even to a servant girl that he knew Jesus. His companions joined him behind locked doors after Jesus had been crucified for fear of what the Jewish leaders might do to them. But then, Jesus rose from the dead! The very sign that the Jews asked for. “The Jews responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’” (Jn 2:18-19). He went on to explain that the temple he was talking about was his body. Then you have the miracle of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came in a miraculous way to give the disciples not only understanding of all that had happened, but also boldness! And that is seen here as Peter is boldly addressing the very people he was hiding from just days before. Remember, this is no prophet or priest. This is not a learned man like Paul. This is not Jesus, but Peter – a fisherman who now preached a masterful sermon that cut to the hearts of his hearers and led them to repentance and faith. If Peter were preaching a lie, then nothing would have changed. Then Jesus would still be dead in the grave and fearful Peter would boldly be putting himself out there for persecution, and attack. But something did happen. Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. The Holy Spirit had been poured out on the disciples at Pentecost so that they understood and were emboldened to speak! These were all signs of proof pointing to the truth that Jesus had indeed died and been raised to life.

It wasn’t just the miracles though. There was also the prophecy. Wow, that prophecy. Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I am reading was written hundreds of years before Jesus even walked the earth because the prophecies are so detailed. Last week we sang Psalm 22. If you like, flip through the hymnal and find Psalm 22 – or you could even use the pew Bible.  It’s as if David were standing right there at the cross recording what he had heard and seen, but in reality, he wrote about 1,000 years before Jesus took on flesh. Even here in Acts, Peter quotes David – a beloved ancestor of the Jews. He quotes what David wrote, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27). Peter then goes on to explain that it had to be Jesus speaking prophecy through David. He points out that David died and was buried. You could still go and see his tomb. If you were to open it, you would find bones clean of flesh because of the decay long ago. But Jesus, raised in three days was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay (Acts 2:31). And there are many other prophecies so specific that it would be foolish to deny that Jesus was who he said he was, and did what he said he did.

We also see from the prophecy, and the things that Jesus said, that his death was always part of the plan. It wasn’t adjusting on the go. It wasn’t a plan B. Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins was always part of the plan. We don’t need to taste the pudding – death – to know and believe in Jesus as our Savior. He tasted death for us. And all the miracles and prophecy teach us to trust him, believe him.

The Jews knew this. They saw the miracles. They knew the prophecy. But sin just has a way of making us stupid. There was no way to refute the proof they had been given. They found themselves silenced by the proof on more than one occasion. But overcome by their sinful nature, they did what was stupid. Going against all reason, all proof, the clear truth, they crucified the Christ in the blindness of their sin. It was part of God’s plan, yes, but they are without excuse. They knew it was wrong, but they did it anyway. And now Peter is gently but accurately calling them out on it.

And he’s not just calling them out on it. He could be calling you and me out on it as well. Even though we did not actively nail Jesus to the cross, we are just as responsible. The Jews too didn’t nail Jesus to the cross. Peter said, “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). He could say the very thing to us as well. “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). And we are no less guilty. You’ve read the prophecy. By the Holy Spirit you believe the miracles are true. You trust that Jesus is who he says he is – the Christ, your Savior. You even have the full revelation of the Word written down in black and white. There’s no denying your faith. But then, you and I go and do something stupid. By the stubbornness of sin, we willingly cross the line, and disobey God’s Word. What are we doing? And the Bible addresses this. It says, “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth” – that’s really what we are doing. We are saying, “God, I know your will, but I don’t want to know it right now. I want to reject the truth and do my own thing right now.” – “for those who… reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Rm 2:8).

But…” Peter is so gracious. He doesn’t allow his listeners to linger long in the sting of the law. Probably because he has felt that sting himself, not long ago. He knew who Jesus was. He followed Jesus for several years, saw all the miracles, witnessed prophecy unfolding before his very eyes. He confessed the truth he believed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). But then he rejected that truth. Knowing full well what he was doing, he cried out and called down curses, “I don’t know the man!” (Mt 26:74). “Then he remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Mt 26:75). It hurts. When we finally come to our senses after the stupidity of sin, it hurts. When we are called out for our sins, “You… put him to death” (Acts 2:23). It hurts. So, Peter doesn’t leave us there long. Your Savior doesn’t leave you there in your sinfulness. “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keeps its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). And ever since that proof, the resurrection, your life has never been the same.

Because of that proof, you have hope for your daily living. The words were originally spoken by Jesus, through prophecy, but because of his death and resurrection for you, they also become your words. “I saw the Lord always before me” (Acts 2:25). Now your whole life, everything you do, is seen through the lens of the resurrection. Now in any moment in life you can confidently say, “Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Acts 2:25). Now you can be glad, and rest in hope – the hope of your own resurrection – all because Christ proved it to be true with his own resurrection. And even though your body may one day see decay, you can still say, “You will not abandon me to the grave… You have made known to me paths of life; you will fill me with joy [when I stand] in your presence” (Acts 2:27-28).

You have this hope. Despite any dark time, any moment of foolish sinfulness, you can come back to this hope and be restored and filled with joy. Share that joy. Peter said, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32). Peter, along with the other apostles made this their life. Well, Jesus called them to do this, but you can see how they were changed because of the proof and hope they had been given. They took this witness relentlessly to the ends of the earth! You have been called too. You have been called to share the hope that you have. And that doesn’t mean you have to travel to distant lands to do so. It doesn’t mean you have to make it your life’s work. But this witness will affect every aspect of your life. The way you live will be different. Your steady confidence through hardship. Your mirror of thanks reflecting God’s goodness. And the way you speak and conduct your life will all be changed. Without tasting, you have your proof. Live in that truth.

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Your Paradoxical Savior (October 21, 2018)

October 23, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Your Paradoxical Savior

Isaiah 53:10-12

Every so often a big trial comes up and grabs our attention. Whether the person on trial is famous or the circumstances of the crime are unique, we all tune in. The evening news shows the day’s highlights and our news feeds fill up with the latest information. Of course, when there aren’t highlights or new information, there is the commentary. Around water coolers and dinner tables we discuss it all. Sometimes even long after the trial is over. The funny thing about all that commentary and discussion is that none of it matters for the trial. It doesn’t matter if we think the defense or the prosecution made a better argument. It doesn’t matter if after the trial we think the judge or jury got it right. The only thing that really matters is the verdict. If the verdict is innocent, this is all that matters. Let the voices say what they will. It doesn’t matter. The verdict has been made.

There was a lot of commentary and a lot of voices focusing on one trial in particular. It was definitely a very unique case. On the one side defendants were claiming that he was a king deserving exaltation and praise! On the other side, prosecutors shouted that he was a usurper and a fraud. Looking at him, you’d be on the side of the prosecution. “He had no beauty or majesty” (Is 53:2). “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain… he was despised, and [people] held him in low esteem” (Is 53:3). Yet if you read some of the reports of his coming and heard the announcements, you would be on the side of the defense. “He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Is 52:13). “Rejoice greatly…. See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious” (Zech 9:9). One great prophet even said, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mk 1:7). Yet, there were other reports that seem to confuse this issue. And if you saw him yourself, well, it depends on when you saw him. At times he was doing great and powerful miracles; while other times he could be found washing the feet of his followers.

Which was he? A great king or lowly servant? When the gavel drops, does any of it really matter? The gavel falls. “Guilty!” is the verdict. He’s sentenced to death. A shock to some, a relief to others. I think you know that I am talking about Jesus. But am I talking about his trial and judgment before Pilate, or his judgment before the Father? We know that Pilate eventually sentenced Jesus to death. What was God the Father’s judgment of Jesus? Was Jesus guilty and deserving death? Or innocent and raised to life?

Before we answer that, let’s rewind back to another trial. In fact, it’s the trial that predicated all of this. There was a couple living in a land where they enjoyed a great number of freedoms. In fact, there was really only one law, one thing they were prohibited from doing. And this law came with a very specific punishment: the death penalty. The couple did it. They did the one thing they were prohibited from doing. Despite having immense freedom, that one thing was too tempting. The man and the woman ate from the tree they weren’t supposed to. The judge knew. The trial revealed all evidence against them. Their guilt was clear. The gavel came down, and their verdict was…. Guilty, but innocent. Deserving of death, yet they did not die.

It’s a paradox really. An inconsistency as it appears. God clearly said to the woman, Eve, “What is this YOU have done?” (Gen 3:13). He clearly says to the man, Adam, “Because YOU listened to your wife and [did this]” (Gen 3:17). And yet, when it came time to enact the judgment, the record says, “Innocent” and they are free to go.

There’s one more trial I want to bring up. And that’s your own. Just as our nation has laws and you are penalized for breaking one, so God also has laws for all people and there are penalties for breaking his law. Law #1 “You shall have no other gods.” Sounds easy enough for us in this room, right? Until you dig into this law a little deeper and realize, that the check I give each week in the offering, yes I give out of thanks to God. And yes, I’ve carefully thought through what to give to God, what I need to provide for my family. But I still struggle as I wrestle with trusting God above money. I still wrestle thinking, “a little more in my pocket would give me more peace of mind.” My peace of mind should not be dependent upon my money! But at times it is. Let’s look at another. Law #5 “You shall not murder.” Again, I think we would all agree and abide by that. But the lawgiver goes on to explain that “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 Jn 3:15). You maybe know that. But even still, you and I try to defend ourselves saying, “Ok, sure, I’ve sinned against this commandment by hating, but at least I’m no murderer!” I’ve sinned to a lesser degree. No! It’s the same thing in God’s eyes. It’s all the same to our Judge. The one who hates his brother IS a murderer. Sin is sin. And when we count up all our sins, all our infractions against God’s law – very serious infractions deserving death – you and I are guilty a thousand times over. We are… all… guilty… a thousand times over. The gavel comes down on you as well. And what’s your verdict? Guilty! I just said it. But yet, innocent. Deserving of eternal death, yet you and I will never suffer that death.

It’s all a paradox, a seeming inconsistency until you connect your verdict with the verdict that Jesus received. You were guilty, and yet declared innocent and are freed to go, live, eternally. All because Jesus, who was innocent, was declared guilty and suffered death, eternal death, a thousand times over for you. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is 53:5-6). Your verdict is innocent, because of your Paradoxical Savior.

Your Paradoxical Savior is dying to live with you. Someone had to die. You heard the law. You heard the penalty. If you eat, you will die. If you sin, you will die. Ever since the fall into sin, someone had to die. God does not tolerate sin and he’s serious about that. So, he couldn’t just dismiss it. Someone had to die. Adam did indeed die, just as God said he would, but his death was not for his sin. He died physically, yes, but he died trusting in God’s promise of life. The death for sin was deferred down the line. Not Adam. Not Seth. Not Noah, or Abraham, or Isaac, but Christ. The death for sin was deferred through history until the death of Jesus – the death that was unlike any other.

If death should have passed over anyone, it should have passed over Jesus. He was the only one who didn’t need to die. The holy and eternal God who was innocent of all charges and rightfully could have removed himself from the situation entirely. Yet he loved you. He took on human life so that he could die for you. Sinful and helpless as you and I are. As fully deserving and rightly judged guilty of sin and worthy of death as you and I are. God loved you and was determined to live with you forever. So, instead of rightly passing the verdict of guilt onto you, he took it onto himself. He hung on the cross and died for you. It sounds ridiculous, like something out of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” – but even those deaths were simply faked, at least to begin with. But Jesus truly died, because someone had to. There had to be death for sin or God would not keep his word and he would be a liar. He died for your sin. He died so he could live with you.

I think sometimes we minimize the death of Jesus. Not intentionally. Not saying it didn’t happen or that it wasn’t like a death that we will one day face. But we perhaps minimize the kind of death he died or the suffering he endured. And that’s because, when we look at death, we see it as we ought. Physical death, but at the same time a gateway to heaven. Jesus’ death was different. His death on the cross was by no means limited to the physical agony of that death. Psalm 22 and Jesus’ words from the cross all serve to show that his suffering reached the very depths of his soul. “My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up… you lay me in the dust of death” (Ps 22:14-15). Have you ever been forsaken by God? Really forsaken, not just feeling that way or wondering what God’s plans are, but truly forsaken? When you reach out to him in prayer, do you find nothing but the stone-cold wall of his back turned, like Jesus did. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Ps 22:1). On the cross Jesus suffered hell. The suffering of your guilty verdict and my guilty verdict.

And yet, despite the physical, emotional, and spiritual torment he suffered, there was joy. Because in suffering, your Savior was able to rejoice with you! “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,” in doing this, “he WILL see his offspring… he WILL see the light of life and be satisfied” (Is 53:10-11). You know that when all the suffering for your sins was complete and he said, “It is finished,” when he let out his last gasp and truly died, there was life. Not only life for him – God raising him to life showing that he had accepted his sacrifice as full atonement – but also life for you, his offspring. As news of this Paradoxical Savior, spreads throughout the world and throughout history, he brings many more to life. When you are standing on trial before the judge, although all evidence would convict you of guilt, your trial is wrapped up in Jesus’ trial. He took your guilt verdict, so that you could be free of all charges.

The cost was high. He paid a high price for you, giving up his honor, glory and authority for a time. But by giving up everything, he gained much more. He gained you. He paid your bond to release you from the prison of sin and death. He gave up his honor and glory so that you could be glorified! He gave up his place in heaven so that you could have yours. And in giving up everything for you, he not only gained you, he also received back all his honor, all his glory, and all authority over life and death and over every power of this world. Praise and glory be to our Paradoxical Savior who took on your guilt so that he could declare you innocent.

Conversations may still arise. People in your life may talk and make you feel undeserving of your innocence. Your guilty conscience may send whispers through your mind convincing you that you deserve the guilty verdict. But it doesn’t matter. The gavel has already come down on you. The verdict has been spoken. The case is closed. “By knowledge of him my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (Is 53:11). Despite any evidence or any commentary that might suggest otherwise, when your life is wrapped up in his trial, you are innocent!

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

October 17, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Trust in God’s Healing

2 Kings 5:14-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 8, 2018
Brock Groth

It’s All About the Message

2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christian Jealousy (September 30, 2018)

October 1, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Christian Jealousy

Numbers 11:16, 24-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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True Greatness (September 23, 2018)

September 24, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

True Greatness

Mark 9:30-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life’s Not Fair! (September 16, 2018)

September 18, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Life’s Not Fair!

1 Peter 4:12-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 10, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

God knows when to say, “When”

Isaiah 35:4-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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