Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Your Sins ARE Forgiven (January 19, 2020)

January 22, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Your Sins ARE Forgiven

Acts 13:38-49

Hey you! Yes, you. I want you to know that your sins are forgiven. I’m talking to you, and you, and you. I’m talking to everyone in this room. I’m talking to everyone tuning into the livestream. I’m talking to anyone reading this sermon online or in print. Your sins are forgiven. It doesn’t matter who you are. “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Ac 13:38).

You might be wondering how I can say that – how I can make such a blanket statement to every single person who ever listens to or reads these words without knowing first who they are. I can make such a blanket statement, because it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or not done. There is forgiveness found in Jesus apart from any kind of law, works, or status. There is forgiveness for you.

I think that’s so hard for us to believe because we all feel the weight. We feel the weight of the things we have done. We feel the guilt of things we’ve not done. And in all other spheres of life there is a reckoning that needs to be had. There’s something that needs to be done to make it right. Either making up for the things we’ve failed to do or making right the things we’ve done wrong. It just makes so much sense that something needs to be done. Nothing is ever given for free. And if something does appear to be free, well, you are bound to it for life. But here it says, “Through [Jesus] everyone who believes is set free from every sin” (Ac 13:39).

Can you imagine what that meant to Paul’s audience – a largely Gentile area, yet most churches were still predominately Jewish? A time when you had to first convert to Judaism before receiving the gifts of grace? The way it was written – our English sentence structure can’t quite do it justice – the way it was written, acknowledges this burden. “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. All those things you never really feel you’ve made right according to the law, through him everyone who believes is set free from all these things – from every sin” (Ac 13:39). The Law of Moses can never make you feel acquitted, or justified. The law of morals, getting what you deserve, and making up for wrongs still never quite clears me of my past. It’s still hanging on, it’s still burdening with guilt, it’s still pressing charges. How can I ever be free? Even for us today, we feel the burden of making up for our wrongs. And many people walk away from Christian churches because they feel they are too judgmental. As long as our connection is only with the law of Moses, its demands and requirements, we will never be free. We will continue to break the law of God and find no means to remove our sin and guilt.

To truly be free, you need to look elsewhere. Look at what Jesus has done already. Hear John’s cry and “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). In this title, the “Lamb of God,” see two different pictures both taken from the Old Testament “Day of Atonement” (Lev 16). Two lambs or goats were taken and presented before the Lord at the entrance of the temple. One lamb is sacrificed as a sin offering for the people. Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The other lamb is presented alive before the Lord. The priest would lay both hands over the lamb and confess over it all the sins of the people, and then send it out into the wilderness. Look, the Lamb of God. In Jesus, the Lamb of God, your sins are paid for completely before God. They are removed from you forever and sent away. “Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin” (Ac 13:39). It’s like seeing the last of all your sin and guilt. Like seeing it all vanish like fog in the hot sun of grace and pardon in Jesus as though you had never sinned.

This is why it is possible to say to everyone and anyone, “Your sins are forgiven.” Because in Jesus, because of what he has done on the cross, everyone is forgiven already. Everyone is acquitted, declared innocent. It’s like being handed a check with the amount paid in full and the name line left blank. It’s already been signed by Jesus. The amount is more than sufficient. It’s a blanket statement for all people. And, it’s a statement, a full payment, for you personally too. Your sins are already forgiven.

What are you going to do with that check? It’s sitting in your hands. Given to you already. Paid in full. Do you believe it’s real? Do you believe it’s really for you? Or are you going to rip it up in disbelief?

When the congregation gathered before Paul and Barnabas heard this news – this forgiveness for all people, no strings attached – they were excited! “The people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath” (Ac 13:42). Some even followed Paul and Barnabas out the doors and wanted to hear more that very day! Can you imagine, these people couldn’t get enough church! They couldn’t get enough of that good news! But, when they gathered again the next week, things were a little different. They drew such a large crowd that it says, “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (Ac 13:44). But, “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him” (Ac 13:45).

I think, for some, this news was a little too good. Sure, if we have a few newcomers in the congregation that’s all well and good. But when there appeared to be such an influx of people into the synagogue, all hearing that they do not need to convert to Judaism first to be saved, well then let’s pull back on the reigns a bit. We might lose the identity of our congregation then. And we just can’t have that. You see, they saw Paul circumventing all the things they had become accustomed to. They saw Paul circumventing all the sacrifices, and rituals, and festivals which were meant to honor and revere God. They thought that Paul was dishonoring the Law of Moses handed down to them, and dishonoring God the giver of that Law. Telling people they are forgiven apart from the law, that they are free from the Law of Moses is just too simple. And although I think it was mostly about doing what they thought honored God and his law, I think there was a part of them also that feared for the loss of their traditions – the loss of the way we’ve always done things.

The truly sad part was, God was handing them eternal life in Christ. But they decided that they were not worthy of that gracious gift – that they could only receive such a gift through sacrifice, and ritual, and festival. God was handing them the gift of forgiveness, but they rejected it. God’s offer of mercy is always sincere. It truly is that simple. He’s already paid the ransom price to set you free. But it is possible to reject his gift. And so, they themselves act as judges in their own case. They do not want the gift – the blank check. Their judgment, therefore, is that they are not worthy of the eternal life which Jesus himself proclaims. In his grace, God regarded them worthy to receive that life through the Savior. But they regarded themselves unworthy.

That’s why Paul uses a stern warning from one of the prophets, “Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if someone told you” (Ac 13:41). That “something” is Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of your sins. That “someone” who told them was Jesus himself, and here in Acts 13 it was the apostle Paul, and today it’s me. I’m telling you that your sins are forgiven already. There’s no ritual you need to perform. There’s nothing you need to do to make up for the past. You don’t need to convert to Judaism as the Jews in Paul’s day were saying. This forgiveness is for all people, given by Jesus. Believe it!

Many did believe it that day. Many Gentiles rejoiced and honored the word of the Lord that was spoken to them and believed the Good News! And although the Jews thought God was only honored when he is approached through rite and ritual, God says otherwise. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel” (Is 49:6). In other words, being the Savior of only one nation is too small a thing. Therefore, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6). And in this way, people coming to Christ for forgiveness and salvation, God is honored.

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Jesus, why are you here? (January 12, 2020)

January 14, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Jesus, why are you here?

Matthew 3:13-17

What a scene it must have been. It was something like what’s going on here as we gather today… only there was no roof or walls, no seats, no altar furniture. But people were gathering to hear John preach. People were gathering to hear John preach and then be baptized. John had one sermon he preached. He probably varied it a little bit, but his theme was always the same. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:2). And people came out to hear his rousing preaching. They came and were cut to the heart, convicted of their own sinfulness. Then, after the sermon, one by one, they approached John, confessed their sins, and were baptized by him in the Jordan River (Mt 3:6).

He actually drew such crowds that one day the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to see what all the fuss was about – who this “John” guy is who baptizes in the wilderness. The Pharisees and Sadducees, by the way, were the religious leaders of that day. Unfortunately, they had departed a bit already from what the Bible said. So when John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he changed up his sermon a bit. He said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:7-8, 11).

Then, after his fiery sermon he begins baptizing sinners who are repentant, and who’s standing there in line? Jesus. We aren’t actually told if it was the same day or not. But regardless, you could almost hear John’s impassioned plea, “Jesus, I just said I’m not worthy to even carry your sandals, and now you want me to baptize you?! I just said you were more powerful than me, and that you would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14). It seems a contradiction.

You see the confusion here. John’s message was one of repentance. It was meant to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah. And now Jesus is lining up with sinners who have come to repent of those sins, and here’s Jesus – not a sinner, no need to repent. Jesus, what are you doing here? I’m sure there was more to the conversation. I’m sure there were many more persuasive pleas and arguments levied by John as he tried to deter Jesus from being baptized, but we only have one such argument preserved by the Holy Spirit in Scripture. One argument to sum it all up. Jesus, you’ve got it all backwards, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14).

Jesus gives just one simple response. “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Essentially Jesus was saying, it’s necessary to do this to accomplish my work of salvation. But there’s a lot packed into that. There’s a lot more to it than just that. Jesus’ answer actually contains two parts. So let’s unpack it.

First, he says, “Let it be so now” (Mt 3:15). This both puts John back in his place and reassures John that his earlier statement about Christ to the Pharisees and Sadducees was not exaggerated. John was correct when he said, “After me will come one who is more powerful than I” (Mt 3:11). “Let it be so now” (Mt 3:15) was an authoritative command from the one who is more powerful. A command from the master that is to be followed by the servant. And by it, Jesus shows that he, the Messiah, who asks for such a lowly baptism by John is still in charge.

The second part, then, explains why Jesus is requesting such a baptism. “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). In other words, things are not what they seem. There’s something bigger taking place here. It is proper for Jesus to request John’s baptism because somehow it involves “righteousness” – “fulfilling all righteousness”. And, just to explain terms, righteousness means holiness, without sin. In fact, it’s really a courtroom term that means “innocent”. So, in the Bible it refers to keeping all of God’s Law perfectly so that one is innocent before God, holy, without sin.

For Jesus this meant two things for him to be our Savior. One, he had to actively keep the Law of God so that he himself could be declared righteous. And two, in order to do that, he had to allow himself to be under the Law of God. We call this his “active” and “passive” obedience. Jesus already was “actively obedient” to the Law of God. He lived a life free from sin. The kind of life that God demands from every one of us – yet none of us could do. None of us are righteous, innocent in God’s eyes. None except Jesus. From birth he was the only child that ever lived a completely sinless life. The only person who followed God’s law to the letter. The only one who could rightly be declared holy and righteous. So, that’s a part of fulfilling all righteousness. The other part is his “passive obedience” and here, at his baptism, is really where that started. Even though Jesus was without sin, to be our Savior, he had to take the place of sinners. So, if God commanded sinners to be baptized, then Jesus too allowed himself to be baptized in your place. And if God says that the wages of sin is death, then Jesus too – despite being sinless – allowed himself to die on a cross in your place. That’s why it was “proper for [Jesus and John] to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15) for you and every other sinner.

Think of it this way. It’s as if Jesus is with you, right along side you, every step of your life. When you wake, he’s right there with you. As you go about your day, he’s with you. And as you lay down at night, he’s there. The only difference is, he lived each without sin, AND he received the punishment for your sins. So, when you do something sinful, it goes to the cross of Jesus, and you are covered instead with what Jesus did perfectly. So that in every way, he is your substitute. So that when God looks at your life, he sees the sinless, righteous life that Jesus lived. And when God rightly punishes sin, he punished Jesus in your place. All this because Jesus went to the waters of baptism with you – to fulfill all righteousness for you. Why do I come here – to the waters of baptism? We go to the waters of baptism to be “buried with [Christ]” (Rm 6:4), a Savior who did what we could never do. Jesus, why are you here? He went to be baptized to be that Savior.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (Mt 3:16-17). After being “anointed”, so to speak, with water Jesus was anointed in a special way by God. The Holy Spirit visibly came down and remained on him, and the Father audibly voiced his approval and the identity of Jesus. “This is my Son,” This man standing before you is the very Son of God. And, I am pleased with everything he does. So pay attention to him and listen to his words carefully!

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry it was important to have this divine anointing at his baptism – almost like a divine endorsement. This authorization, this endorsement, was fundamental for Jesus’ ministry. It became the benchmark by which Jesus countered unbelief of the Jews. They criticized, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mt 21:23). “Who gave you this authority” (Mt 21:23). And “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid” (Jn 8:13). But Jesus always countered these by saying that his Father had approved and authorized his person and plans at his baptism, and that John was a reliable witness to this divine authorization (Mt 21:23-27). Really, what more then can they say? Jesus has the Father’s divine approval – visibly, audibly, and attested to. What more can they say against God’s very Son.

This goes for you and me as well. First, for us to know and believe who Jesus really is – the very Son of God. Then also, to know exactly what he came to do. He came to be your Savior – doing all things necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15) for you. Making every baptism something more than meets the eye. God says, “baptism saves you” (1 Pt 3:21). God says, “Be baptized and wash your sins away” (Ac 22:16). God says, he “makes [the church] holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (Eph 5:26). So God can rightly say you are righteous.

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Can I be certain? (January 5, 2020)

January 9, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Can I be certain?

Ephesians 3:2-12

It’s confusing times we live in right now. It’s hard to have any kind of a discussion in which two people have opposing views because who’s to say who’s right anymore? There’s household rules that are probably different between my house and your house. There’s societal norms that often shape and guide the way we live. And even so, we can have a wide range of opinions on different things. Who’s to say who’s right. So often you really get nowhere in a conversation as we all just agree to disagree, all have the right to our own opinion on everything. And that’s only if we’ve managed to keep the discussion from getting too heated! It seems today that if you make a firm stance on anything, you are deemed too judgmental in a dismissive kind of way.

In a recent conversation I had with a friend, we began talking about future influences on our children, and what we will do to help guide and shape their futures. The conversation then moved to gender and relationship issues and how much we should weigh in on our kids’ lives. They were of the mindset that each person can choose their own path. And they supported their point with both societal norms and the idea that if it’s not something they can change even if they try, then it must not be wrong. They were polite and listened to my viewpoint as well, but in the end, who’s to say who’s right? Can we be certain about anything anymore? And should we be certain? Or… for fear of being called “judgmental” should we just back off and let society run its course unchallenged?

Looking at Ephesians 3, the word “mystery” comes up a number of times. Now, many people take that word and run with it saying, “That’s exactly what God’s Word is. It’s a mystery. We can never really be certain about what it says because it’s a mystery.” And you can take that the next logical step and go one of two directions. Either, there’s a secret key to unlocking God’s Word, and unless you have that key, unless that key is revealed to you, then you will never be able to be certain about what it says. Therefore, search for that key in numerology, or astrology, or all other kinds of “-ologies”. Or… since God’s Word is a mystery, we must each take away our own meaning from it – our own truth. They say God’s Word is to be read privately and personally interpreted. So, what I get out of it may be different from what you get out of it, and that’s ok. That’s the “mystery” of God.

That’s not at all what the word “mystery” means. As an example, consider a mystery novel. When you finish reading a mystery novel and report back to your book club “Who dun it,” you all have the same answer. You all have the same answer because the mystery was not ambiguous, it was definite. The mystery was not left a mystery, it was revealed and clearly spelled out in the last chapter. The same goes for God’s will in his Word. It was a mystery. It was hidden. But now, Paul said, “you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed” (Eph 3:4-5). Again, a little later he says, “[God’s] intent was that now… the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Eph 3:10).

So where is God’s wisdom revealed? In his Word. There it’s spelled out in black and white so that you can be certain what God’s will is. “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4). And although this is spelled out most clearly once Christ came into the world, although it was more hidden in the Old Testament era, it was there all along. Look again and see that from the beginning of time the knowledge of the true God was available to all peoples. The Old Testament writings proclaim the message of a world-wide Savior. Recall God’s promise to Abraham that, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3). Note in Leviticus how often God refers to foreigners (Gentiles) living among the Israelites and nowhere excludes them from sharing in the blessings of salvation. Go with Elijah to Zarephath and with Jonah to Nineveh. Read Isaiah’s book and hear God’s proclamation to the islands and distant nations. God’s will is that all people be saved AND come to a knowledge of the truth.

There is truth. There is unchanging truth. There is truth that you can be confident in. And if you are called too “judgmental” for standing firm in the truth, it’s not you they are calling judgmental, it’s really God they are calling judgmental. And it’s because they fear an impartial judge that they try to excuse themselves and seek lenience. And really, it’s not different from what we do when we excuse our own sins and seek lenience. We too feel that God is judgmental.

Instead of lenience and bending the truth, you can show them God’s answer to the conscience that is pricked within every one of us. Not leniency, but mercy. It’s in God’s Word where we see the right judgment of Jesus for all people. “All of us lived [in our transgressions and sins] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” – I’m not being judgmental because I put myself in the very same boat as you! – “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:3-5). So, whether you are Jew or Gentile, Christian or non-Christian, church-goer or not, Jesus – who has the right to say who’s right – says that we were all in the wrong. But, each one is made right through faith in Christ. Through whom God also pours out his rich mercy, his rich love, the riches of salvation to you.

God’s wisdom was to cut though all the things that may divide us and put us all on the same level, so that he could lead us to the one and only way to be saved. The one and only way that any of us are made right in God’s eyes. That mystery is now revealed, plain as day, to be Christ. So that in Christ, “Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people” (Eph 3:8), yet in the same way – just as anyone else – I am forgiven in Christ. Jesus proves to us that he alone has the right to judge and justify because he is the one who died and rose again. He proved himself to be the one true God by rising from the dead after mercifully taking all our judgments to the cross and dying with them. Because he’s proven himself to be the eternal God, and given us his Word of truth, we can be certain.

It was this certainty of God’s Word that led the Magi to only one possible conclusion when they saw the star in the sky. It was this certainty that led them to carefully gather not only provisions but also gifts they planned ahead of time to give. It was this certainty that spurred them on to take a journey of hundreds of miles, spanning weeks maybe even months. It was this certainty that made these high-ranking officials from a far-off kingdom not even question why they got down on their hands and knees, down to the level of a child to worship and to pour out their treasures to him. They knew who this child was. God’s Word revealed the mystery. “You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler” (Mt 2:6). He was God in the flesh, Immanuel – King of kings and Lord of lords.

It was this certainty of God’s Word and the fulfillment of every detail in Christ that scattered the apostles far and wide to reveal God’s wisdom, so that people everywhere might have a taste of the truth and hunger for more. It was this certainty that kept them anchored despite being forced on by riots, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, even killed. It was this certainty that enabled martyrs throughout the centuries to consider the truth of God’s Word more valuable than even their very lives.

Can we be certain? Yes. Who’s to say who’s right? God is. And he’s spelled out what is right from the beginning in his Word. It hasn’t changed. It’s stood the test of time. So that no matter the nations move or shift, no matter societies change and bend, no matter individuals stand firm or not, God’s Word has never changed. It has remained a steadfast and certain source of truth.

And it’s no mystery what that truth is. It’s spelled out plain as day. I may not always like it. I may twist and writhe trying to contort myself around the truth so that I can live how I like, but the truth never changes. And that truth is, through God’s mercy we are “heirs together… members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:6). God established it. Jesus fulfilled it. And for centuries his servants have shared it. This is most certainly true.

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Love throughout the ages (December 29, 2019)

January 9, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Love throughout the ages

Hosea 11:1-7

I don’t know about you, but I find it fascinating to compare the age of Jesus in different accounts to people I know today. For example, Jesus was about my age when he conducted his ministry – early thirties. That’s also why the parts of the sermon today go from tiny toddlers, to teen years, to thirties. A person in Jewish society was finally considered an adult when they were thirty years old. Keep that in mind for later, as it helps illustrate God’s love throughout the ages. Of course, at Christmas I think of tiny little newborns. That was my kids in past years. This year I think little Thomas is the youngest – with a couple others arriving very soon! Then, when the Magi, the wise men, came Jesus was probably a little younger than 2 years old. And just after their visit, Jesus still a toddler, Joseph fled to Egypt with his family to escape Herod’s wrath.

I’m sure we could all make such comparisons with people in our own lives – whether they be our own kids, grandkids, or even nieces and nephews. Hosea is a book that doesn’t get much coverage, but it’s packed with illustrations like these. Illustrations that make very vivid what God is doing. Here, in chapter 11, the Lord uses the illustration of a father’s love for his child throughout the ages to demonstrate his love for his children – believers.

It says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms” (Hos 11:1,3). Many of you remember those years. Some of you – me included – are going through those years right now. You remember those years spent on the floor teaching a tiny toddler to walk. The child first holding on with two hands, then one, and finally walking without help. You remember the times spent in teaching, training, and instructing your own young children. Training them to eat, to walk, to speak, to write, to think, and to act responsibly. It takes hours, days, and years of patience and constant encouragement. But it’s an investment of love that most parents gladly and willingly give.

That’s what God did for the nation of Israel. He loved them long before they even became a nation. Just as you loved your children long before they were even born. God brought them out of Egypt, instructed them, gave them a home of their own, watched over and protected them. In the same way God loved you and brought you up. Called you his child in the waters of baptism. Instructed you in Sunday School, Catechism class, and Bible class. Trained you through the example of your older brothers and sisters in the faith. And continues to do so every day.

Yet, as children grow older, how often do they complain about their parents’ concern and watchfulness. Every child from time to time disobeys or rebels against their parents’ direction. Every child goes through those dreaded “Teen Years”. For Israel, it was a time of rejecting God and his wisdom, turning instead to the gods of their neighbors. During this time God sent prophet after prophet after prophet – calling them back in love. Hosea was one of those prophets. He was a prophet sent to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during their last days. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was the part of Israel that fell first – not to the Babylonians, but to the Assyrians. God the Father was calling them back before his “rebellious teen Israel” charged headfirst into destruction.

But many of you know how difficult it is to speak sense into a stubborn teen. God’s prophets were rejected, ridiculed, and ignored. The Israelites preferred to worship Baal. They preferred to make their own choices. They thought they knew best. They thought they could offer God lip-service while fully indulging in the false gods they really wanted. Time had erased the Israelites’ memory of how God “taught them to walk” as a nation and “carried them in his arms”. Time had erased the memory of all the times God “healed them” and “restored them”. Time erased the Israelites’ memory and the significance of God’s fatherly love.

In the same way, time away from God our Father can erase our memories of his goodness. Time since Christ’s first coming can erase the significance of what he did for us. How God gave his own Son, to live with us for a while and then die for us. How the Father brought you into his family through baptism, which was probably years ago for many of you. How the Father gave you his Word and sent his Spirit to nurture you in the faith and carry you through some very trying times. Time away from God can erase our memories of all this goodness. The instruction of God’s Word often becomes unimportant by comparison to all the other things in our lives that we have to do right now! So we too, turn from him, reject him, ignore him, and shut him out of our lives like the stubborn teens we still are. And this doesn’t have to be over a period of years. This can take place between Sundays. This can take place in a single day – any time you shut out the Father’s words and listen instead to your own.

Realize this, it is not God who turned on Israel, it was they who turned from him. By pursuing their own sinful passions and idolatries, they chained themselves to the very nations of who’s gods they preferred. They returned to the same humiliating bondage they endured in the days of their infancy as a nation – this time not to Egypt, but to Assyria – the very nation who’s gods they loved more than God their Father. Israel’s sinful practices and worship of false gods led to real destruction and enslavement by other nations. For us, our sinful passions don’t always lead to physical enslavement – but they enslave us nonetheless. The workload that calls us for overtime is heard more clearly than the Father’s call to his house. Time spent on everything our kids are busy with is more important than time spent with our Father. The many activities we find ourselves enjoying becomes an addiction stronger than the habits our Father taught us when we were young. And make no mistake about it, if you continue to ignore and reject the call of your heavenly Father, you too will be headed for very real destruction.

What comes next, though, I think is one of the most beautiful pictures in Scripture. No matter you are applying this to Hosea’s original context – the nation of Israel – or you are applying it to the broader context of all believers, you see the tender heart of your heavenly Father’s love throughout the ages. When you were a tiny toddler in the faith, the Father says, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms… I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek” (Hos 11:3-4). Then, through the rebellious teen years of our sinfulness the Father’s own children are determined to turn from him. He sends them the prophets, he sent his own Son, he sends his word, yet we refuse to repent. And we have the Father, picturing himself as a man battling with himself, trying to reach a decision on what to do about this rebellious child – this rebellious heart. “A sword will flash in their cities; it will devour their false prophets and put an end to their plans” (Hos 11:6). And yet, with a drastic shift of emotion, we feel the Father’s deep compassion welling up in his heart. Like the parent whose heart melts after seeing their child whimper after the discipline they needed. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again” (Hos 11:8-9).

How could a loving Father forget his relationship with his child. He looks at his disobedient child and is overwhelmed by love. He knows that what his rebellious son has done is worthy of expulsion from his house. And this rejection is made even worse by the fact that this child has received so much from the Father. Yet, God still called his people his own. He could not let them go. He could not let you go. His heart was changed within him.

Though the Father often describes himself in human terms, he reminds us here that he is not a man, but God himself. We call this “anthropomorphism”. Since we cannot fully comprehend God, he describes himself with human terms and characteristics. Thus, he can say that his heart is changed even though God does not change. What he’s saying is that to us and our limited experience it looks like God is relenting from his anger – changing his heart regarding our punishment. But really, this was God’s plan all along. All throughout the ages his plan has always been one of love. It has always been to send his own Son so that your sins may be forgiven, and you too would become children of the Father. He is not a man who is often ruled by his passions, by favoritism, by whims and fancies. He is God. He is the Lord of unchangeable holiness and the Lord of unalterable love. God is never ruled by passion, by favoritism, or by hatred. His plan throughout the ages has always been one of love. And so, when we, his sons and daughters are rebellious, when we turn away from him, he remains constant in his love and sent his Son to restore the Father-son relationship we broke in the first place. He continues to call you back home and remind you of the love he showered upon you when you were a tiny toddler in the faith. He calls you back and shows that is love is steadfast even through those teen years of rebellion. And when you are mature in your faith, thriving in your thirties, so to speak, you see clearly the Father’s steadfast love throughout the ages.

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God so loved the world (December 24, 2019)

January 9, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God so loved the world

John 3:16-18

How can a loving God allow so much suffering? I hear that question a lot. Whether it’s because mom or sister or daughter is in the hospital for health issues she shouldn’t be having at this age. Or it’s because dad and husband is not going to be coming home. There are plenty of problems in our lives that might make us wonder, “Does God really love this world? Does God really love me?” In fact, it can even look like God has abandoned this world. It can seem that he has abandoned you. It can seem that he doesn’t care. Since this is what we see with our very own eyes, we must conclude one of two things. Either, there is no God, because if there was this world would be a much better place. Or, if there is a God, he’s not very loving, so I don’t want anything to do with him.

But there’s a third option. In fact, it’s the very reason we are gathered here tonight. Option 3 is that God is loving and that he is doing something about all the pain and sadness in the world. Jesus states the fact very plainly, “God so loved the world” (Jn 3:16). And isn’t it shocking that he does? I mean, we were just talking about how much of a mess this world is. There is hate and hurt and abuse. There is lying, cheating, and stealing. There is jealousy, arrogance and injustice everywhere. And God loved this?!

And if you’re thinking, “Why would God create this mess in the first place? Why doesn’t he just snap his fingers and get rid of all this mess?” Well… if he did, that would mean not only getting rid of the things that hurt or harm me. It would include getting rid of me. Because I also hurt and harm others. He doesn’t want to get rid of you. He wants to restore you to the way things were. He didn’t create it to be this way. That was our doing. God created a perfect place for us to live. God created a paradise in every sense of the word. But sin ruined all that. Sin causes all the suffering we see in this world. Yes, sinful actions, but it’s more than that. Sin corrupts not just actions, but all of creation. Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. Now there is death. Now there is illness. Now there is suffering, and sometimes it’s for no other reason than just a general side effect of living in a world corrupted by sin. Sometimes God allows suffering into our own lives to remind us that this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not our permanent home. God wants something better for us.

Yes, “God so loved the world” (Jn 3:16) and that includes you! It includes you who suffer from weaknesses and illnesses. It includes you who suffer from injustices and abuses. It includes you who suffer under the weight of your own guilt too. Yes, God loves people like you and me even though we are corrupted by sin and sometimes lash out in sinfulness. No matter how big or small in your own eyes, God loves you. And if you are thinking – Who could love someone with so much to feel guilty about from their past? Who could love someone with so much to feel guilty about in their present? Who could love someone who has done those kinds of things or has those kinds of thoughts?

Who? The God who proved that love with action. He doesn’t just tell you about that love. I’m not here to just point to words printed on a page and say, “See?! God says it, so it’s true! God says it, so you have to believe it even when you don’t feel it.” No, we are here today to see how God loved the world. To see what he did about all the suffering in this world. What he did so that even the one who feels unloveable, even the one who feels like no one cares, so that every person sees what God did to prove his love to you – to do something about your pain and suffering.

God loves you, not just with “lovey dovey” feelings. God’s love is his action for you. “God so loved the world that he gave…” (Jn 3:16). Gave what? A new car? A new house? A million dollars? No. Better than that. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (Jn 3:16). Who of you would give up your own child? Imagine that your child was in the hospital recovering from an illness. A doctor comes into the room and tells you that there is a child a few rooms down who is dying. But that other child will live if you are willing to give her your own child’s heart. It will mean, of course, that your child will die. But the other child will live. Who would ask for such a thing? Who would agree to such a thing? Who would be willing to make such a sacrifice?

Your God would. In fact, your God did. He gave his one and only Son. That is what tonight is all about. That little baby in the manger is God’s gift to you, to the world. Not a gift wrapped in paper, but a gift wrapped in cloths. Not a gift placed under a tree, but a gift placed in a manger. That little baby is God’s gift to you. That little baby is the greatest gift you will ever be given. No matter what you unwrap later tonight or tomorrow morning, Jesus is worth far more. He restored your broken relationship with God – a relationship broken by sin. He willingly went from lying in that manger to hanging on a cross where he paid the penalty that your sins and mine deserve. The baby whose birth we are here to celebrate took our place and paid our price so that God is now able to say, “I forgive you. I no longer hold your sins against you.” And the hymn we just sang weaves those two pictures together beautifully – the manger and the cross. The infant and the Savior. The words to the song are from a Christmas hymn. But the melody is from a Good Friday hymn – “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” The two pictures are connected. The child was born to die as your Savior. God gave his Son to gain you.

So that takes care of the problem of sin. What about the problem of suffering I still endure? I still can’t believe that a loving God allows it. Well, I guess you have two choices. Either you could continue to deny God completely, but what does that leave you with? You still have all the same pains, all the same sufferings, yet still no answers. Or, you can trust that God is loving as he says – loving as he’s shown – and see that sometimes God allows suffering to remind us that this is not how it’s supposed to be – this is not our eternal home. He even uses suffering at times to bring us closer to him. Since you have a Savior from the corruption of sin, you also have a Savior from the effects of sin. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). That eternal life is life in heaven. God sometimes allows suffering to bring you close or keep you close to him, trusting that there is more to life. There is something better than here. There is eternal life in heaven where there is no more mourning or crying or pain. Where all things are made new again!

For many people, Christmas is a favorite time of year – a time of calm and peace and comfort. But, before long, it passes, and we are back to our busy lives. Before long, we are back to the realities of this world with all of its stress and sadness and sin. And, if Christmas was nothing more than parties and presents, it would have nothing to offer when we return to the realities of this world. But tonight, you see that Christmas is much more than parties and presents. It’s much more than a day or two pause for peace and joy before returning to everything else. Christmas is proof that God loves the world. It is proof that God loves you. Remember this during times of suffering and you are tempted to wonder if God even cares. He does. That baby in the manger proves it. The Savior dead on the cross and risen from the grave proves it. And that means Christmas is more than just a season – it’s the gift of eternity.

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God of Grace (December 22, 2019)

January 9, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God of Grace

Matthew 1:18-25

Have you ever had one of those sleepless nights where you just have so much on your mind that you couldn’t fall asleep? Maybe it’s running through lists in your head making sure you have everything you need for your big trip coming up. Maybe it’s just been an exciting day that you just can’t stop replaying through your mind. Or maybe, something has gone completely wrong and though you lie still, your brain is frantically trying to figure out a solution.

Joseph found himself in the middle of an unwelcomed nightmare. His bride to be was pregnant, and he was not the father. As a righteous man, faithful to the law, he could not go through with the marriage. Yet, he was deeply concerned for Mary. As a merciful man, he could not expose Mary to public disgrace. He was trapped, it seemed, between loving God and his law, and loving others with mercy.

How long did it take for Joseph to fall asleep that night – with broken betrothal promises on his mind? And understand, that betrothal in biblical times is different from modern day engagement practices. Mary and Joseph had already promised their lives to each other as husband and wife and in God’s eyes, that was the beginning of their marriage. According to the custom, though, they would not live together as husband and wife until a certain time period had elapsed. That’s the timeframe Matthew zeroes in on. They had made their marriage promises, but not yet come together. They were pledged to be married, and Matthew even uses marriage terms – calling Joseph “husband” and his option “divorce.” This was no small decision.

What were his options, exactly. If Joseph, wanting to remain faithful to the law, did divorce her, what would that look like? Joseph would take this situation before the proper authorities, at the very least it would mean public disgrace for Mary and the child for the rest of their lives. If Joseph wanted to press the issue and demand that the law take its course, well, Deuteronomy 22 details what should be done in such a case. If a woman was found to be promiscuous before marriage, “she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and stoned. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house” (Deut 22:21).

Realize the implications of these actions. If the law was pressed and Mary was killed, keep in mind that her child would be killed also. Jesus would have been killed in the womb. Even if spared from death but divorced from Joseph, then the prophesies would not be fulfilled that say the Messiah would come from the line of David – because it is through Joseph that this prophecy would be fulfilled.

All this weighed heavy on Joseph’s mind as he likely struggled for sleep that night. How could she have broken our marriage promises? How could she have been unfaithful? I know what the law says, but I care about her – I love her – and don’t want it to come to that.

It’s the same conundrum – so to speak – that God is in regarding sinful people like you and me. And the Bible even uses the same kind of language to describe it. God gave his covenant, his promise, to bring Israel to himself and make them his treasured possession (Ex 19:4-6). And the Israelites made their promise to do everything the Lord has said (Ex 19:8). Believers are even called the “bride” of Christ (Is 62:5). It’s a beautiful and loving relationship between God and his people. But when that relationship is broken, when we are unfaithful to God, our groom, and unite ourselves with all kinds of other desires – addictions, wealth, family, etc. – then the language of the Bible paints a very revolting picture. “They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves” (Ps 106:29).

What is God to do with us sinners, found to be unfaithful – breaking the marriage covenant that God established with us, breaking the loving relationship he showered upon us. What is God to do? The law of his word is very clear. “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ez 18:20). “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). That is every single one of us. There is not a one who has remained faithful to God in action and word and thought. We have been unfaithful, and the law of God is clear: Separation from God and disgraced; death (yes physical, but also spiritual); and just punishment for all our wrongs in hell. Just as the punishment for Mary would have been a very ugly picture – so God’s law paints a very ugly picture for you and me.

But there was another option. There was another option that allowed God to remain righteous – faithful to his law – while also allowing his love and mercy to shine through. That option is Jesus. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Jesus literally means, “He saves!”

Our names have meanings too. Benjamin means, “son of my right hand.” But our names typically have meanings in other languages. Benjamin is Hebrew, and we don’t speak Hebrew. “Jesus” his Greek name, or “Joshua” his Hebrew name, means “he saves” in the language that people spoke. So, when Mary calls little Jesus in for dinner, her neighbors literally hear, “He saves! He saves! It’s time to eat.” And when Joseph calls Jesus to help him in the workshop, his customers literally hear, “He saves! Come and help me.”

God’s option for all people was not to treat us as our sins deserve, but to save us – to be gracious while still upholding his law. Sin must be punished. There’s no sweeping it under the rug. No dismissing it like it wasn’t a big deal. No allowing it to remain because God is holy. And to be holy means he cannot tolerate sin. If God simply excused sin in any way, then he would no longer be holy. And God can’t be something he’s not. So, God punished sins rightly upon the cross where Jesus, who saves, suffered the punishment in your place and in my place. He suffered the condemnation of hell, separation from God, and physical death to rightly pay the wages of sin. Not only did he take away your sins, but he also gave you his perfection, his righteousness, so that you can now stand in the presence of a holy God. So that right now you are perfect! Despite any unfaithfulness, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 Jn 1:9). God remains faithful and does not divorce you (2 Tim 2:13).

It’s the perfect option. God remains faithful to his law, yet forgives the lawless. And now he establishes a new marriage covenant with you – a covenant of blood. By the blood of Jesus, who saves, you are forgiven and declared faithful to the law. By the blood of Jesus, who saves, you are covered with robes of righteousness. By the blood of Jesus, who saves, there is no more shame for your sins – no more disgrace in God’s eyes.

Joseph was considering an option like this too. An option by which he could remain faithful to the law, yet graciously spare Mary from public disgrace. “He had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19). But God was bringing about much bigger things. Not just the faithfulness and mercy of one man, but the faithfulness and mercy of all mankind. God intervened by revealing through an angel what he was working all along. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21).

The angel reminded Joseph that he was a descendant of kings. Starting this night, he would act as one of David’s line again: he would care for the promised Son who would reign on David’s throne. God had come to save his people, just as he promised. He would do it through the child in Mary’s womb. Joseph believed the promises of God kept in Christ and named the child, “He saves,” knowing full well he was “God with us” (Immanuel).

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Patience makes perfect (December 15, 2019)

December 18, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Patience makes perfect

James 5:7-11

When are you most tempted to get even? Is it when someone beats you in a game and you want to even the scores? Is it when someone doesn’t follow through on what they promised to do, and you are tempted to do the same the next time they ask for help? Is it when someone is tailgating you or cuts you off and you feel it is your solemn duty to let them know how rude they are?!

To the Christians in James’ time, it wasn’t tailgating or games. It was being cheated and exploited by their employers. It was cries for a fair wage falling upon deaf ears. It even went so far that even murder wasn’t out of the question in the pursuit of gaining more. This is what James’ readers were experiencing. This is what they were enduring. And James’ encouragement to them was not stand up and repay! Not injury for injury. It was, “Be patient.”

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming” (Jas 5:7). The King James’ translation of “long-suffering” is perfect here. It includes the self-restraint which enables the sufferer to refrain from hasty retaliation. He’s not denying their suffering. He’s not saying, “It’s really not that big of a deal.” He’s getting right into the pits with them, “Be patient, brothers and sisters. I know it’s hard. I know it hurts. But be patient until the Lord’s coming. He will sort everything out in the end.” This is no façade of machismo. This patience is not ashamed to cry when it hurts or when it’s hard. But it’s a patience that is grounded in the conviction that when the fullness of time arrives, the Lord will come to put the mighty down from their seats and send the rich away empty. “Be patient until the Lord’s coming” (Jas 5:7).

I don’t think of any of you as hot-tempered. I don’t see any of you bent on revenge. But you still need to hear these words, “Be patient.” Because the problem is often much deeper than a hot tempered or vengeful attitude. You see, often the problem is that we strive to control our tongues and actions when we are wronged or injured, but we never actually really let go of the frustration. We let the irritation and the frustration build up and grow in our hearts. It lies dormant for quite some time. But after a while, after enduring and suffering long, and not really letting it go – after a time, the slightest provocation may cause us to vent out all those pent-up emotions and frustrations. We blow up on our spouse or family or close friends who deserve our courtesy at least as much as do the people who have hurt us. It’s backwards! We are “patient” for those who hurt us, and potent to those love us. We are brothers and sisters James says! Even if there is no word or act of ill-will toward each other, the feelings remain buried in our hearts or come out only as a silent utterance of a sigh. And although we might call that “patience” it’s really not! Patience is not just in word and action – it starts in the heart and the mind. It starts with letting go of all that pent-up suffering.

The Judge is standing at the door!” (Jas 5:9) James warns. I think of the parent standing at the door after putting the kids to sleep – waiting, watching, listening to see if they are really asleep. Our grumbling or rage may take the form of getting back at another who’s wronged us. It may take the form of jealousy against our neighbor’s good fortune. But is it really against God? Is it really grumbling and complaining and rage against God when it seems to us that he is too slow to wreak vengeance on our adversary, or too hard on those he calls his own children? Is your frustration really against God for allowing you to go through such suffering?

The Judge is standing at the door” (Jas 5:9) can actually go a very different direction as well. It is both a warning AND a consolation to Christians. As a parent ready to calm their child after a bad dream or comfort them when they are sick and suffering, so God is right at the door. Keep in mind that his sternest condemnation is reserved for those who judge impatiently and uncharitably. Keep in mind that he cares about, protects, and comforts his children in their time of need.

Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Jas 5:10-11). Take your pick. There wasn’t a prophet that did not face suffering and injustices. Jesus said, “I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town…. From the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah” (Mt 23:34-35). Salvation history is one continuing litany of divine patience and forbearance in the face of persecution, rejection, hostility and unbelief. Suffering is a certainty. Jesus calls us to carry our crosses as we follow him. But he also wants you to understand that “no temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful: he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). He was with the prophets, strengthening, upholding, comforting, and calming. As an example of patience look at the prophets and see, not how they were so fearless and long-suffering, but see how God filled their hearts with patience. And see how hearts filled with patience overflow with peaceful actions.

Rather than shaking a fist and spouting words, go to God – your way out – with folded fist and soft word. Rather than holding your tongue and keeping rage in, open your heart and pour your rage out to God. Not only does God promise to keep up from being overwhelmed, but he also promises to strengthen us and to nurture us in difficult times. “Come to me you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pt 5:7). And like sand flowing out of an unclenched fist, your rage empties into Jesus who does hear you and does care. Jesus knows the injustice and will root you in peace just as he did the prophets. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12).

Heaven seems like a distant reality to really mean anything for me now. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and [say false things]” (Mt 5:11)? I don’t feel very blessed. Heaven is too far away to really make me feel any better. Did you know that some of the early Christians, some of the first century Christians expected Christ to return in their own lifetime?! Now, we might chuckle a bit as we see the 2000 year gap between us and them with still no second coming. But I think we’ve fallen into the opposite problem. Whereas there was a definite sense of urgency in everything they did – from personal sanctification to worldwide mission work – I think there’s often a sense of apathy in our lives. James makes it clear that the patience he is urging is not to be a comfortable settling down into a rut in expecting a long wait. No! “Be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near!” (Jas 5:8). “strengthen your hearts” is a better translation. “Be patient and strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming IS NEAR!” (Jas 5:8). Whether it be 5 minutes from now or 50 years from now, strengthen your heart because the Lord’s coming is near.

See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains” (Jas 5:7). It’s something that even though you don’t see it, it is coming. In that region, the fall rains soften and loosen the soil so the farmer could begin plowing and planting. The spring rains are the heavy showers that come just as the crop is ripening. Just as the farmer cannot schedule rainfall – cannot in any way even cooperate with God in causing it to rain – yet he waits with patient anticipation. And that patience gives him peace because he knows the rain is coming. The crop is coming.

Like the farmer, you’ve seen the signs – wars and rumors of wars, outpouring of the Holy Spirit, salvation preached to all nations. You’ve heard the truth. Although we have no way of knowing when Jesus will return, we never doubt the fact that he will return. At just the right time he will come. At just the right time he will rescue you from all that you suffer, and at just the right time he will make all things right. So, you can be patient in the way you act – God will deal with it. And you can be patient in the way you wait – Jesus will come. This patience, rooted in the certainty of God’s promises, sets you at peace.

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Let God be God – December 8, 2019

December 11, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Let God be God

Daniel 4:19-37

You’ve heard of Daniel – lions’ den and all that. You’ve even heard of Nebuchadnezzar – dreamer of dreams and fiery furnace. But what was that? What was that harsh account that we just read? A king is proud of his accomplishments and is struck with animalistic insanity? A king who once lived in palatial comfort, suddenly preferred to live outside in the dew, eat grass, and forget all hygienic principals. There’s actually a name for that type of insanity. It’s called Boanthropy. It’s a psychological disorder in which a person actually believes himself to be an animal – living outside and eating grass. Interestingly enough, there’s cases of the same thing today. And I think it’s going to become more widespread – as people tell themselves and force society to acknowledge that they are a different gender or race. There actually are even some who believe themselves to be a different species – to be animals. Really, it all boils down to humanism. It’s all an expression of what’s at the root of our sinfulness, and that’s me. Humanism is attaching prime importance to the human rather than the divine. Humanism says, I make my own rules, I make my own greatness, I don’t need God. And it’s infecting every one of us.

What was so wrong about being proud of his achievements anyway? I mean, yes, pride comes before the fall. But it doesn’t seem like Nebuchadnezzar had gotten there yet. All he said was “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). And it would seem he was justified in it too. It cannot be denied that Nebuchadnezzar was clearly the most gifted and ambitious ruler of his day. Everything we read about the man in ancient records shows that he was an achiever. Even before he ascended the throne, Nebuchadnezzar led Babylon’s armies to a string of impressive victories. He crushed great Egypt, as well as what was left of the once great nation of Israel. While Nebuchadnezzar was famous as a warrior, he was even more famous as a builder. Babylon was the largest and most magnificent city of the ancient world. A claim made by ancient historians and supported by the spade of the archaeologist. Nebuchadnezzar’s capital was an excellent example of early city planning. The city was divided into a number of city blocks and sections with wide roads. Near the royal palace were the famous Hanging Gardens, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A system of canals regulated the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for use in irrigation. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of two huge walls that surrounded the city, each more than twenty feet thick. It cannot be denied that Nebuchadnezzar was gifted and ambitious.

Was he justified, then, in what he said about “great Babylon?” Was God just being a bully because they had conquered his special nation? No, God was not being a bully. And no, Nebuchadnezzar was not justified in his boast – building Babylon by “my power” and “for the glory of my majesty”. Rewind history just a bit farther and hear what God declared through his prophet Jeremiah, “Because you (Israel) have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations” (Jer 25:9). God is the one who builds up nations and God is the one who tears them down. God is the one determines how long they will last and how their end will come about.

In boasting, Nebuchadnezzar failed to acknowledge that his reign, his kingdom, his abilities and ambition were gifts from God. Gifts to be received gratefully and to be used responsibly in humble obedience to God. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t realize that he was only in such a position and could only claim such greatness because God had given it to him, and because God was moving nations to accomplish his plans.

We forget that sometimes. We forget that God is God and we are not. We think we know how the story will end, and like Nebuchadnezzar, sometimes we are quite wrong! We like to think that we have the lead role in the play, but really we don’t even know how close we are to the closing curtain. And we don’t realize, however big a role we seem to play, we don’t realize how small and short our scene really is. The only one who knows all this, it the author of the play. The only one who determines what goes on throughout life, is the author of life.

In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, we have a man who thought he had the lead role of his scene, of his act. But he failed to realize that he was only where he was and who he was, because the author of history determined it to be. So, his boast of “The great Babylon I have built… by my power and for the glory of my majesty” (Dan 4:30), wasn’t simply being proud of his accomplishments. It was claiming the role of author, when in reality he was merely an actor in this play of life. An important actor, but ultimately guided by the author of all history.

So, when we, as “actors” so to speak on the stage of world history decide to rewrite our roles, we are really claiming authorship for ourselves. We are elevating ourselves to the position of God, rather than letting God be God – the author of all things. This can be as blatant and crass as declaring yourself to be something that is contrary to God’s clear design – a female when you are not, a male when you are not, an animal when you are clearly a human. Or, it could be as subtle as a boast in your own accomplishments – in your own ability to shape the world around you – I am where I am in life because of me!

Well, that all sounds very dull and dreary. That all sounds rather cruel and robotic. Like everything we accomplish has to be quickly followed up with a forced, “To God be the glory” – it wasn’t my doing, it was God’s. What kind of God demands such things? What kind of God is so jealous?

Or, is it exactly the opposite? Does God humble the proud so that he can exalt them to even greater heights? Did God humble Nebuchadnezzar so that he could really become great?

You need only look at history to see God humbling the proud so that he can exalt the humble. God promised that he would make Israel great – yes through the Messiah, but also as a nation. And Israel was powerful during the reigns of the early kings – even taking on nations seemingly more powerful. But soon they became proud. Soon they decided to claim authorship. Soon they decided that one God wasn’t good enough and they wrote other gods into their story. That’s when God stepped in with Babylon. After humbling Israel, he then gave them the greatest honor. In the words of Simeon, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:30-32).

You need only look at the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, it’s interpretation and fulfillment to see how God’s intention in humbling him was to exalt him in the right way. In the dream, although the tree – which was Nebuchadnezzar – was cut down, the order was also given to leave the stump. Because God intended to restore Nebuchadnezzar. God intended to exalt him again. And you see this to be true! After he lived out in the wild with matted hair like feathers and long, claw-like fingernails, after the set amount of time God gave the humbled king enough understanding to raise his eyes to heaven and pray a prayer acknowledging the Most High God. “I honored and glorified him who lives forever” (Dan 4:34). When he did, he was permitted to return to normalcy. Actually, restored to even better than normal. “My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before” (Dan 4:36). “Even greater than before” in authority and accomplishments, yes. But I would say it’s even more than that. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right, and all his ways are just” (Dan 4:37). It seems that after it all – after building an empire and a great city, after being humbled with insanity and restored – Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest boast is his faith and his God. He was happy to let God be God, giving the author of history proper glory.

Yes, God has given you many and varied gifts. Yes, you can be proud of your accomplishments. But let God be God. Give him the glory of penning those gifts and accomplishments into your script. Because then you will never lose sight of his greatest accomplishment in you – your faith in salvation through Christ.

It was Jesus who “though he was by nature God, he did not consider equality with God as a prize to be displayed, but he emptied himself by taking the nature of a servant… Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:6-7, 9-11 EHV).

It’s fascinating that the greatest person to ever walk onto the stage of history was a lowly servant. Though his role was shorter than most, it impacted history the most. He was easy to miss as he entered the stage – born in a stable, wrapped in cloths, placed in a manger. He was easy to mock as he left the stage – crucified as a criminal. But then, in a stunning plot twist, he reentered history. Not as a servant, but as a king. Lord over death. Defeating Satan. Dominion over sin. And guess who’s going to be back just before curtain close, just before the end of all history. It’s Jesus – Lord of all lords, King over all kings.

The only reason he is serious about not sharing his glory with another, the only reason he humbles the proud, is so that they would keep him front and center on the stage of history. So that all people could truly become great through him. Nebuchadnezzar refused to give God the honor due him, and failed to acknowledge God’s authority over him and so reduced himself to the level of an animal – driven only by his own desires. Yet look at the mercy of God! When Nebuchadnezzar repented and glorified God – putting him center stage – the Lord forgave him, renewed him, and restored him.

Put down the author’s pen and let God be God. Glorify him as the center of your life. Because it is he who knocks down the rule of sin and the reign of death. It is he who elevates you as the crown of all creation. It is he who glorifies you as sons and daughters of God himself!

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The Day is coming (December 1, 2019)

December 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

The Day is coming:

Are you Aware? Are you an heir? Are you prepared?

Matthew 24:26-44

One of the times I value very highly is Sunday afternoon. After preparing all week for Sunday Worship, having Bible Study, leading worship, heading home for lunch and getting the kids down for naps, finally I am just ready to collapse onto the couch and just relax! Maybe watch a show or a movie. Maybe drift off into a nap. It’s all just perfect! Except, often there’s also a lot of things I want to get done in that time – things that I didn’t have time for during the week. Things that are impossible to do well when the kids are wanting to play and spend time. And yet, there’s only so many hours in the day. In fact, only a few hours before the kids wake up from their afternoon naps. Do I rest after a long week? Do I get things done? A time is coming when I won’t be able to do either anymore.

A time is coming for you as well. Are you aware? A day is coming when all of this will end. A day when Christ will return and you will no longer be able to work or rest. No longer able to have a change of heart. Are you aware of that day? Are you an heir? And are you prepared?

Jesus actually compares it to the time of the great flood in Noah’s day. He says, “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt 24:38-39). What’s really interesting is that Jesus does not mention their violence or corruption, although that did certainly characterize the people of Noah’s day. Back in Genesis it says, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). Their wickedness and evil did characterize them, but that’s not what Jesus points out here. That’s not his main warning. What he points out is that up to the day Noah entered the ark, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Well… what’s wrong with that Jesus? Nothing! There’s nothing sinful in those actions themselves except that they were symptomatic of their unconcern. These common, everyday activities became sinful when there was no regard for God. They were completely involved with earthly matters and unconcerned about anything else.

But Jesus, what do you expect? You just said that the people “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (Mt 24:39). Let’s think about that for a moment. There’s a guy building a boat – a huge boat – on dry land. Were they really so ignorant? In Genesis, God said he would number their days, 120 years (Gen 6:3). And when God numbers days, he sends prophets to warn. Most likely, Noah was not just building an ark, but also warning! In fact, the apostle Peter even calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pt 2:5) To those who asked questions or mocked him for building such a large vessel, he explained God’s plan. He warned them of the coming flood. So, it’s not that they knew nothing, it’s that they didn’t want to know anything. They wouldn’t believe what was going to happen. It wasn’t innocence. It wasn’t even ignorance. It was arrogance on their part.

The day is coming. God hasn’t told us when, but he has given his word about it. And I’m sure you’re aware that God has a very good track record on keeping his word. So what are you up to? Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, going to work and school, driving to extracurriculars and favorite activities – all great things to be doing! But are we so involved with our earthly activities that we neglect spiritual activities? Are we so caught up in improving our skills, enjoying life, setting up a perfect future for our kids that we forget about the Day that IS coming? There were scoffers in Noah’s day, “Where is this flood that God promised?” There are scoffers in these last days as well. “They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was [flooded] and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly’” (2 Pt 3:4-7).

A day IS coming when Jesus WILL return. Are you aware of that fact? And if not, why not? Are you expecting there to be a long drawn out lead up? Are you expecting that when that day comes you will still have time to move from arrogant ignorance to expectant faith?

At times I like to think about what that day will be like. I’d like to think that it will be on a Sunday morning, like today. Then, just after hearing the gospel, as we are singing with all joy and longing, “Savior of the Nations come,” then the stained glass – softly glowing – will radiate an ever growing light until the glass shatters, the roof is lifted, and there is Jesus coming in the clouds to greet us! In my mind, at least, that would be pretty awesome. But I know that’s likely not the reality.

Actually, there will be a deceptive normalcy on that day. “[This] is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Mt 24:39-41). We are living in a time where the majority of people will act as though there is nothing more important than following their earthbound activities – just like before the flood. The majority of people will not acknowledge or realize that he who came in grace to save them will return in glory to judge them. And if you and I are not careful, we can easily get swept up into that very same mentality. If you and I do not purposefully, with intent, carve out time to hear God’s words and remain aware of that Day, then we will be caught off guard just like in the days of Noah. When Jesus returns, when the Last Day comes it will be too late.

So, being aware, what then? There have always been only two groups of people for all of human history. Those that are heirs, and those that are not. Those that believe, and those that do not. Yet looking around, it’s hard – in fact impossible – to tell the difference. They will be working together as partners, they will be associating with each other in their activities, they may even be members of the same household. There is no difference, except what is in their hearts. Do they believe that Jesus saves from all sin, or not?

It’s easy to get so caught up in the matters of this life, that we forget to set aside time to get caught up in the matters of the next life – in the matters of faith. Thankfully, God didn’t consider himself too busy. He wasn’t too caught up in upholding and preserving all of creation that he couldn’t spare the time for the crown of his creation. No. You are what matters most to him in all of this world. That’s why he entered into human history, came down himself, to be born, to live, to die and to rise. All so that you could be an heir. Then, for you, in some way by the Holy Spirit he lead you by his word – whether that be the word you first heard from your parents and were brought to the font for baptism, or the word you heard from a friend or family member, a neighbor or colleague. God is not too busy. He takes the time for you. He seeks after you. He finds you when you are lost. He builds you up when you are down. Carries you when you can’t go on. And welcomes you when you are alone. In some way God led you here and made you his heir so that when that day comes you will not only be aware, but also an heir. So that when that day comes it will be a day of longing and joy! So that you would be prepared.

The final 3 verses of this section contain 3 commands – 3 urgings – to help you prepare for the Day that is coming. Verse 42 says, “Keep watch! Because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Mt 24:42). Just because you don’t know when the Day is coming, doesn’t mean you can’t keep watch. In fact, it means keep watch all the more! Things will be going on like normal. Don’t be lulled into complacency as the masses were in the days of Noah. Don’t let your eyelids hang heavy, or your heart grow weary because the Day is coming. Jesus is coming for you!

Jesus goes on with the second command, “Understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into” (Mt 24:43). I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a thief call ahead. The two times my car was stolen, I didn’t get a call or a text. After the first time, and getting the car back, we were vigilant! We bought a steering wheel club and used it every day. But then we grew lax, thinking it would never happen again – certainly not twice to the same vehicle! Again, no text, no call, car was gone a second time. Understand this: there is great loss resulting from a failure to keep watch at all times. Christ has already come in grace to make you an heir. He will come again in glory to judge all people. He’s given you the text! He’s called you through his ministers. All the more reason to be prepared every day and not take chances.

Finally, much a restatement of the previous two, “Be ready, because the Son of Man WILL COME at an hour when you do not expect him” (Mt 24:44). The truth is, even for you and I who are aware that the day is coming, and heirs of the one who is coming, that day will still come as a surprise to you who are watching and waiting – to you who are prepared. But it will be a joyous surprise for those who are aware, are an heir, and are prepared!

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Close your eyes to see (November 24, 2019)

November 29, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Close your eyes to see

Luke 23:35-43

What Bible story do you think of when you hear the title, “Christ the King”? What account from Jesus’ life do you think would best demonstrate the fact that Jesus is Christ the King? I think a very fitting story would be Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was then that people were excitedly praising him with shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna which means, “Rescue!” “Save!” or “Savior!” They thought that this was it. They thought that this was the moment when Jesus would take is rightful place as King of the Jews and overthrow the Romans, bringing back glory and honor to Israel! They waved palm branches of victory, laid their cloaks down as a carpet under his feet as he rode triumphantly in on a donkey. A donkey too, which although it seems like a lowly animal to us today, was actually a noble animal to ride. One of the judges, Jair, had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys, and controlled thirty towns in Gilead (Jdg 10:3-4). These were powerful people! Horses were for times of war, donkeys for times of peace.

But that’s not the account we are going to talk about today. Today we are going to talk about a text that most would say represents anything but a king. The crucifixion of Jesus is his lowest humility, not his greatest glory. But if you close your eyes, you might just be able to see it. If you close your eyes to the abhorrent image of Jesus hanging bloodied and battered on the cross, you can hear it. You can hear it in his words how deeply he cared for his people and how nobly he declared his authority. Close your eyes to see the most kingly a man has ever been.

Any king’s number one priority – any good king’s number one priority – ought to be his people. If the people are suffering, the kingdom suffers. If the people prosper, the kingdom prospers. I wonder how long it took for that thief on the cross to see the care and the concern that Jesus had for common, everyday people. Was he there when Jesus reached out to the sick and the suffering – not only meeting the immediate need of health and healing, but also showing compassion, common courtesies, and providing for their spiritual needs? Was he there when Jesus called a tax collector, named Matthew, to be a part of his inner circle? Did he curiously follow them to Matthew’s house where Jesus ate with and talked with other tax collectors and sinners? Did he overhear Jesus say to the Pharisees, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). Was he there on that emotional day when Jesus arrived to comfort Mary and Martha after the death of their brother? Did he overhear Martha’s confession, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn 11:24)? Did he hear Jesus’ response, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25).

Or, did he only have his prayer for the soldiers to cling to? We aren’t told when this man believed. We aren’t told how long it took for him to finally see Jesus as a merciful and compassionate king – a king who cares about all people. But we do know, that as this criminal hung from his own cross, contemplating life and death, perhaps fearing the heavy weight of what comes next, the judge that he would have to meet – We do know that he heard Jesus’ merciful prayer for people who should have been his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

Were those the words that gave him hope? Were those the words that led him to desperately call out in faith to the only one who might care about him, the only one who might be merciful to a criminal like him? He knew his sin. He knew the punishment he suffered was just. He knew he was receiving what his deeds deserve. But he also knew a merciful Savior when he saw one. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). Understand, his plea of “Remember me,” was not just a sentimental, “Think of me,” kind of thing. This criminal was using a plea for mercy which had long been a part of the Israelite vocabulary. Perhaps Psalm 25 was running through his mind, “In you, Lord my God, I put my trust… Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love… Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good” (Ps 25:1,6-7).

Then, the King who cares, also showed that he was a king with credibility, and authority. Authority to give this man hope in his dying hour, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Who else can say something like that but God alone? Who else can make that judgment but the King of kings and Lord of lords? Truly this is the Son of God. Truly this is Christ the King!

You and I aren’t very different from that criminal on the cross. Actually, we could go around the cross and put ourselves in all those different shoes. At times I am the soldiers, resolutely, mindlessly following the orders of my sinful nature and crucifying Christ to please the master of sin I have chosen. At times I am the rulers, sneering at the verses in Scripture I read, asking the Word to prove himself to me rather than humbly struggling to understand the unfathomable wisdom of God. At times I am the one criminal, suffering the consequences of my own sin, that I foolishly ran straight into, only to writhe under the pain I’ve caused myself and arrogantly demand, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Lk 23:39). Save the honor of your name that I’ve dragged through the mud, and save me from my punishment.

Yet, of all the people gathered around the cross, may we eventually make our way around to seeing Jesus through the eyes of the repentant criminal – accepting the consequences of our own sins, yet seeing clearly the only one who can rescue us from the wrath for such sins. Interestingly, he’s the only one who calls Jesus that name. “Jesus, remember me” (Lk 23:42). Jesus means, “He saves.”

Close your eyes to what the world looks to for hope. Close your eyes to what your human perspective would make of this picture. And see your King clearly, doing exactly what a perfect king would do. He served his people. He wanted his people prosper and thrive. He wanted to save his people from the enslavement of their sins. So he did what needed to be done. He laid down his life for sinners and evildoers, for the stubborn and rebellious, for people like you and me. He laid down his life to forgive all sin. And because of that merciful sacrifice for you, he has the authority to say, “You will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).

What that must have meant for a dying criminal. What those words must have meant to a sinner contemplating his judgment. Not only did Jesus give him a promise to cling to, “You will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43), but he also gave him a specific anchor of hope, “Today”. It won’t be long dear friend. I know you suffer. I know your pain. I know the torments of sin as it weighs heavy upon your own nail pieced body. It won’t be long. I will remember you. I will see you in paradise… Today.

Don’t miss this one last point in regards to Christ the King. He always has someone else on his mind. He’s always doing for, working for, serving someone else. As nails were hammered through his hands and feet, his attention wasn’t on the pulsating pain, but on ones who were causing it. “Father, forgive them.” And as he hung, bones out of joint and struggling for breath, his attention was on one hanging with him. “Today you will be with me.”

Life has its many pains. Life has struggles. Life has worries and doubts. But you know one who willingly takes all of these into his own capable hands. Jesus is willing to carry your burdens. Jesus is able to figure out your struggles. Jesus guides your future just as he has the past. And since you know this, since this is your anchor of encouragement no matter what you face, you can close your eyes to your own struggles, leaving them in the hands of the king, and open your eyes to the needs of others. Jesus saw opportunities for what they were. To the hungry, he filled their souls as he filled their bellies. To the sick and wounded, he healed their hearts as he healed their diseases. To those looked down upon and cursed, he removed their shame as he proclaimed them blessed.

Jesus saw an opportunity to speak of life to the man dying next to him. What opportunities is he giving you, each and every day.

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