Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Let God be the Judge (December 9, 2018)

December 10, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Let God be the Judge

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

When you take on a task, or even a major life change, it’s important to consider why you do it. It could be something you rather enjoy, like a hobby or interest. And in that case your motivation, your “why”, is probably “because I enjoy it. It helps me unwind at the end of the day, puts me in a better mood, and is even a way I better myself.” Great! If it’s a major project at work or school, the motivation is probably because it was assigned, and you have to get it done. You could maybe take it a step farther and say you want to do the project well because you take pride in your work, you like your company, and it reflects well on your character. Just one more example, something a little more life changing. What might be your motivation for a major life decision like getting married, starting a family, or moving for any number of reasons? It could be love for another person. It could be fulfilling your life dreams, or something else.

Now, imagine any one of these situations if your motivation was misaligned. What if you started a hobby and then found you didn’t really enjoy it. Yet you continued that hobby simply because you didn’t want to quit, or perhaps because you’ve already invested some money it in. That really changes the game. Your motivation, your “why”, is now completely different. On the outside it may all still look the same. You still complete the assignments, finish the task, or continue in your hobby just the same. Maybe even put on a good face. But when the motivation is misaligned, it becomes something completely different. I’m going to even take it one step farther.

What is your motivation for being faithful stewards of the gifts that God has given you. That’s really the one requirement that this reading from 1 Corinthians 4 is addressing, and really, could be one way to summarize everything that God asks of us. He asks us to be faithful. Paul writes, “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor 4:2). There’s really an illustrated role that helps flesh this out a little bit better for us. NIV captures the idea, but misses the imagery. What verse 2 is saying is “it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor 4:2 NASB). A steward is one who managed a portion of all that his master had. So the master takes a portion of his possessions – note: they belong to the master, not the steward – but the master trusts the steward and allows him to have complete management of whatever he has been given. So, one steward may manage the flocks and herds of the master. Another steward may manage the finances. And yet another could manage the master’s affairs. Each steward is given complete confidence in whatever they have been given as if it were his own, yet really, it belongs to the master.

So, what have you been given by your master, God? Let’s start with the very fundamental, you’ve been given your life. In addition to that, you’ve been given certain abilities and talents which can enrich your life and the lives of others. You’ve been given your role as a student or employee. You’ve maybe been given a spouse and a family. You’ve been given all your possessions. And here’s a difficult one to wrap our minds around sometimes: your vocation.

Some would think of a vocation simply as a job you do, maybe an occupation. Others think of a vocation as your passion – something you are pursuing. In Luther’s day, “vocation” was understood to apply only to those called to religious service. Yet, as Luther studied God’s word, he began to realize that “vocation” is much more than that. The Bible points out that a human being is not called away from this world; rather, one is called to enter and engage the world, especially those who are in need, powerless, or suffering. This means that every person is called to live his or her life in relationship to others. While young Luther was raised with the notion that only the work of religious professionals really “mattered” in the world – I think we fall into that mindset at times too – yet the Bible shows that we all form part of an interdependent web in which life and health are sustained and supported. Jesus even said, “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). So, the test for vocation is not “Are you doing something religious?” but “Are you serving the real needs of your neighbor?”

That’s vocation. That’s the section of his possession that God has asked you to manage. It’s every place your life touches the life of another. Your vocation as student has to do with the way your life touches the lives of your fellow students and teachers. Your vocation as employee has to do with the way your life touches your co-workers and employers. Your vocation as spouse and family member has to do with the way your life touches the lives that God has put into a family with you.

So, with all that in mind, back to the original question. Have you proven faithful as a steward of all that God has entrusted to you? I think every one of us could go through each area of our vocation to see where we have fallen short. I haven’t been the student or employee that God would have me be in this world. I haven’t faithfully been the committed and loving spouse that God would have me be. I haven’t always been the caring and nurturing parent that God has called be to be. I haven’t faithfully used the gifts and abilities God has given me to serve my neighbor or to serve my God.

What does faithfulness even look like? Can anyone prove faithful? Hebrews 11 is known as the “Hall of Faith” chapter of the Bible. In it, you find brief summaries of about 20 people or groups who were honored by God as being “faithful”. But let’s take a closer look at one of these divinely called “faithful”. Scripture calls Moses a faithful servant in God’s house (He 3:3). Yet he was not perfect. Do you remember when God called him from the burning bush? I wouldn’t really say that he was willing to take on that vocation. He even complained about his ability to speak, which God specifically said was a non-issue for this task. He was not always liked by the people he was asked to lead. He even made an infamous, monumental blunder when he struck the rock for water instead of speaking to it as God had commanded (Nu 20:12). And yet, Scripture says that God judged Moses as faithful.

The crux of the matter, and something we need to understand, is really that human judgment does not have the final say. We aren’t to let others judge us, nor are we even to judge ourselves according to human standards. “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor 4:3). Because, the fact is, we as humans jump to conclusions. We presume to judge what God alone is able to judge. We use metrics to judge that aren’t God’s metrics. Human judgment usually picks at specks of sawdust and makes a big deal about them (Mt 7:3). But God does not judge that way.

The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). As Jesus sat and watched people put offerings into the temple treasury, he praised the woman who gave the least as being faithful and giving the most. Because he saw what no one else could see. He saw that while others gave out of their wealth, she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on (Mk 12:41-44). Again, whereas everyone might praise the exemplary conduct of one person, and frown upon the dishonesty of another, it is God who hears the prayers of both. It is God who proclaims the dishonest sinner forgiven because he hears his sincere prayer of repentance, while condemning the Pharisee who claimed to not need forgiveness. So, who’s judgment should we really be concerned about? Will we power through the burdens we place upon ourselves with misaligned motives because we want to be praised by others? No, the Bible says, “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore… wait until the Lord comes” (1 Cor 4:3-5).

That’s good news for you and for me. I don’t know what weighs heavier upon you, your own judgements against yourself or the judgments of others. Either way, we all have been about as faithful Moses when he complains against God for putting so much on his plate, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?… I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me” (Nu 11:11-14). And yet, despite moments like this, God judges Moses as faithful! Even puts him in Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith!” Because that is not how God judges you and me – not in our moments of weakness. God judges you through the strength of Christ. Who, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2) so that you could be judged faithful. It is through the blood of Christ that you are cleansed as with a launderer’s soap. It is by Christ living in you and leading you on paths of righteousness that you are refined and declared faithful.

So, in all that you do in your vocation – whether it be completing an assignment, building someone up, or changing diapers – what God asks for is faithfulness; that we prove faithful. It’s faithfulness that flows from Christ’s love for you. Faithfulness that looks at all that God has given you and stands in humble awe. God has given you the abilities and the talents. He’s given you your vocation and possessions. All he asks is that you use them for others, out of love for him. And now you see how it all comes down to motivation – the right motivation.

Allow me a longer quote from Martin Luther which vividly illustrates the contrast. “Now observe that when our sinful nature takes a look at married life, she (sinful nature) turns up her nose and says, ‘Do I have to rock the baby, change its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my job, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? Why should I make such a prisoner of myself?’

“But what does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It (Christian faith) says, ‘O God, because I am certain that you have given me life, and have given me this child from my own flesh, I also know for certain that it meets your perfect pleasure. I confess to you that I am not worthy to rock the little baby or change its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have been given this distinction of serving your creature and your most precious will? O how gladly I will do so, even though the duties may seem insignificant and despised. Neither cold nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor will dissuade me, for I am certain that this is pleasing in your sight.’” Later he continues and says, “God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is changing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.”1 God looks past the task itself and into the heart. “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5).

 

1 Luther’s Sermon on “The Estate of Marriage” (1522)

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Pay attention to the signs! (December 2, 2018)

December 4, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Pay attention to the signs!

Luke 21:25-36

What’s your exit number? Maybe you are putting together travel plans for the holidays. Maybe you are planning to visit family. If you are driving long distance to do that, you probably have an exit number in mind. If I were traveling all the way back to my parents’ house in Connecticut, that number is 66 – exit 66. I haven’t done the drive from Texas, but I’ve done it from Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and Michigan. After a long drive when I’m sick of driving, tired, yet anxious to see family, I start looking for the signs. The Connecticut border, and Danbury shortly after. Hartford, I’m getting really close! Exit 66, there it is! Jonathan Drive, I can coast down the hill. I’m practically at the front door. Those signs kept me going after many long drives, and gave me hope as I was excited to see family I hadn’t seen in so long. What are the signs for you? The signs that tell you the journey is almost over? Or maybe you have family coming to see you, and the signs are the phone call you get when they are leaving the house, and then 1 hour out, then the headlights pulling into the driveway! These signs give hope and anticipation!

But what about when you miss the signs? There’s one sign in particular I almost always miss. It’s when I’m coming home from a trip to Killeen. I know it’s coming. I’m looking for the exit sign for highway 121. When I climb the steep hill between Killeen and Temple I know I’m close, but I’ve missed it so many times. Driven right passed and had to adjust my course. I think it’s because there are no signs leading up to 121. No signs except the one right at the exit. So, you’ve got one shot. And if you miss it, too bad.

As we begin another church year, we journey again through the life and ministry of Christ – starting with his birth. Yet as we make this journey repeatedly, we are really always on just one journey – the journey to our heavenly home. How often do you think of or take note of the signs that you are getting closer to your heavenly home? There are signs, you know. And they serve very much the same purpose as road signs. Are you sick of some of the things you see in the world around you? Are you at times tired of school, tired of working so hard, tired of the ailments that just don’t seem to heal? Or, on the positive side of things, are you simply excited to meet the one who gave your life purpose – who freed you from the power of sin? Are you excited to stand in the presence of your God and eager to see loved ones once again?! Well, there are signs to remind you it’s coming soon! They are like mile-markers measuring off the passing of time as we get closer to the Last Day. “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’” (Lk 21:8). “Nation will rise against nation” (Lk 21:10). “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences” (Lk 21:11). Whenever you see one of these events, you know that you are headed home. You know that Christ is coming soon.

Yet, how much attention do we pay these signs? What is our state of alertness? Do we see these signs of the end as reminders that we are making progress, headed home? Or do we see them simply as the stagnant backdrop of the world we live in? Are we really living with the mental state of anticipation – and heightened anticipation every time we see these things happening?

I know that for me these signs are often simply a cause for disappointment. When the earthquakes hit I cry out, “Why?!” When I hear someone publicly teaching false doctrine, I stir with anger, “How could they?!” Yet really, I should be filled with longing, “How long, O Lord?” I should be seeing these as signs proving what Jesus said in the last chapter of the Bible, “Yes, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:20).

I think, often we forget that. I think we forget that every day we are one step closer home. In fact, any day could very well be the Last Day! And if that were to happen, would you be expecting it? Or would you miss your exit because you haven’t been paying attention to the signs? “Be careful,” Jesus said, “or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” (Lk 21:34). How many of you have looked back on a day as you lie in bed and just thought to yourself, “Well, that was a day wasted. That was a day I’m not proud of – I wouldn’t bring it before God as an example of my living as his child? My sins have overpowered me. Laziness got the best of me. Or I just didn’t make the right choices.” And these days pile up. They take hold of us and weigh us down so that we are so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with me struggling to get my life in order until suddenly, “that day closes on you like a trap” (Lk 21:34).

Earlier in Luke 21, Jesus mentions the “mile markers” the signs that the end is surely coming near. But here, in verses 25-26, Jesus describes the signs of the Last Day – the “exit sign”. “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (Lk 21:25-26). This whole world – the whole cosmos – is held together and kept in perfect balance by God. So, when the end comes and God decides that this will be the Last Day of the heavens and the earth – all things – will be shaken and thrown into chaos. And for those who haven’t been paying attention to the mile signs – for those who always made God a “later” thing and never something to be put first each and every day – they will be caught weighed down and unprepared when the signs of the Last Day suddenly appear.

Pay attention to the signs! “watch and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:36). The signs are clear! There’s no missing them. You see them all the time even when you are not connecting them with their meaning. And so that is my hope today. My hope is that the next time you see an earthquake on the news, or hear a minister leading people astray, or are unsettled about rumors of war, when you see and hear these things, connect it with Christ. See them as signs, mile markers, anticipating his coming. And take comfort that “your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28).

Because there is only one way to escape that day. There is only one who can free you from the power of sin that enslaves and the deep darkness of death. And that’s the One who came near to break those powers and defeat death for you. It was Jesus who came near to you, to be tempted in every way in your place yet the traps of Satan did not ensnare him. It was Jesus who took the weight of sin, anxiety and doubt off of you and was brought low in your place. It was Jesus who walked through the valley of the shadow of death in front of you to show you the way out – breaking the seal of the grave so that every one of his children could safely travel home.

This is your redemption. This is your way home. You have it already. Jesus came for you to save you from the wreck of a life that each and every one of you were born into. And now, as he takes you home, he points out the signs along the way – not as signs of concern or to scare you – but to remind you that Jesus came for you. And to give you hope because your full redemption is surely drawing near.

Some of these signs are terrifying by nature. How many of you were at least a little on edge as Korea tested rocket after rocket and their reach came closer and closer. How many of you were concerned for the men and women in our congregation, in our community, who could have been called upon to ship out. How many of you are troubled by the polluted doctrines and false truths that are promoted and so easily swallowed by sheep being led astray. These events are terrifying. Yet for the believer, they have a comforting significance. You and I know that with each passing sign we are getting closer and closer to home.

And that means redemption. Yes, we are already redeemed children of God. That’s why these are signs of hope. But the end means complete fullness to our redemption – a final redemption. It means no more sin which seems to overpower us day after day. It means no more Satan trying to blind our eyes to the signs and lead us off course. It means no more death. Pay attention to the signs. They are very clear, and they are reminders that redemption is near. So, when the earth is shaken, and you see the final signs in the sun, moon and stars, do not be afraid, you are no longer weighed down by your sins. “Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is” here.

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Greetings from God (November 25, 2018)

November 26, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Greetings from God

Revelation 1:4-8

Open up almost any of the New Testament books that were written as letters and you will find much the same greeting as you see here in Revelation 1. It almost gets to the point of redundancy when reading through the Bible. Coupled with the long, complicated, run-on sentences that riddle these greetings to the point of incomprehensibility, and you might just be better off skipping over it entirely. After all, we know that God is good and worthy of all praise, but what we really want to do when we read the Bible is grow in our faith and our understanding of how God works.

Well, here you have it. The whole sermon text today is basically just a greeting. Really, the only “body” of the letter that has been included in this section is a reiteration of a prophecy that says Jesus is coming and when he does, everyone will see him. And Jesus stating that he is the “Alpha and the Omega” which was basically just said in the previous verses. Doesn’t sound like much to work with. That is, until you get brave enough to slog through some of those run-on sentences and see that this is more than just a standard greeting. The apostle John is trying to briefly summarize just who your God is and what he’s done for you, before launching into a letter that deals with the unsettling details of the End Time and the effort of Satan and his evil angels against you!

So, “Greetings” and “Peace” to you. That’s how John starts this letter. It’s basically the typical Greek greeting “Xairete,” which means joy, and the typical Hebrew greeting “Shalom,” which means peace. Although, it isn’t quite that. “Shalom,” “peace,” the Hebrew greeting is fine because it was born out of an understanding that God’s chosen people have peace through the Messiah. It’s the secular Greek greeting that John, and the other apostolic writers tweak a little bit. They don’t write “xairete,” the write “xaris.” They aren’t simply saying “greetings,” they are saying “grace!” Grace and peace are what you have from God. Essentially, it’s a summary of all the gifts of God’s love that come to us through Jesus Christ. And with every greeting that the evangelists write, they are essentially saying that these things should always be on the forefronts of your minds. “Grace” and “Peace” from God. So that your faith – the gospel – rolls off your tongue as easily as you would say a greeting to someone.

So, John goes on, who is this God? Are you ready for the first run on sentence? “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:4-5). It’s a trinitarian description of God. An important reminder that although the majority of our focus is on Jesus, our Savior, God’s work for you is so multifaceted, so complete, that to truly understand his grace and peace, you have to understand how the trinity works for you, to bring you complete salvation.

Now, if you are looking at the reading in the bulletin and scratching your head wondering where on earth I’m seeing the complete trinity in this run-on sentence, let me break it up for you and unpack it. Look at the word “from” in those two verses. There’s three of them. Point them out, underline them, circle them. Grace and peace to you “from” the first person of the trinity, and “from” the third person of the trinity – they are out of order here – and, verse 5, “from” the second person of the trinity. And each of those descriptions for each person of the trinity evidences the reason for “grace” and “peace.”

The first person, God the Father, is identified as “him who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:4). God doesn’t change. Who he was in the past is the same person he is today. And who he is today is the same person you will see face to face on the last day. From the moment sin first entered the world he’s been all about graciously loving you and saving you from sin. Right now, he wants you to know that there is peace between you and him. And when you see him on the last day, there will be nothing to fear. This consistency of God is very fitting in a book which speaks of Satan’s raging against the Lord and his church. As you look around and see how things are changing – how the world is becoming more and more godless – know that you have peace! Because your God never changes. He’s always been all about saving you.

The seven spirits, or the Sevenfold Spirit, is before the throne. The Holy Spirit is continually interceding for you before the throne. He is bringing your prayers and interceding with groans that words cannot describe – preserving you in God’s grace and assuring you of your peace. Although you sleep at night and wake in the morning, the Holy Spirit is always before the throne. And although you may drift from God here and there in your lifetime, the Holy Spirit is never giving up on you. He’s always before the throne.

Finally, “grace” and “peace” to you from Jesus. And in this description of Jesus we are reminded of his threefold role of prophet, priest, and king. He is “the faithful witness” who reveals God’s promise of grace to you – in word and action. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us” (Lk 24:32) two disciples marveled as Jesus revealed to them that despite appearances, God has always been about bringing salvation. Despite the fact that Jesus died on the cross and seemed to be utterly defeated, this was God’s plan for atonement. The path which took him to the cross to shed his own blood was the only sacrifice that could really atone for sin. He gave up his life and graciously took your place in the punishment for sin. Yet he rose, and as “the firstborn from the dead” he assures you that because of the peace he has established, you too will awake in your eternal home. Having done away with the guilt of sin and defeating Satan Jesus stands unshaken as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5).

This is the God you have on your side. This is the power that stands for you despite the darkness, the sinfulness, the sadness and despair you see in the world. Your “grace” and “peace” is firmly established – never to be forsaken, changed, or forgotten – because your God has himself established “grace” and “peace.” And he has established it for you. Everything is under the power of Jesus as he rules in his eternal kingdom for the benefit of you, the church. Therefore, the ragings of this sinful world cannot overcome your King, who watches over you.

So, the apostles say, “grace and peace to you.” I say it to you almost every Sunday. But most importantly, your almighty and never changing God says, “grace and peace to you.” What do you have to be fearful of?

Perhaps when you look around you see the Prince of this World slowly, methodically conquering more and more of it. We talk about it. We talk about the godlessness and immorality that’s taking over nation after nation. We even say out loud, perhaps even pray, “I hope I don’t live to see the day.” We pray “thy kingdom come” which is actually a prayer for God to advance his kingdom upon the earth – that more and more come to faith. But either by a misunderstanding, or perhaps simply out of despair we pray “thy kingdom come” thinking of the day when Christ will come and take us out of this world. Because it seems we are fighting a losing battle. It seems that Christ is the King of heaven only. That he came to do what he needed to do and now he’s simply running an evacuation mission.

Or maybe you don’t even have to look around. Maybe you only need to look right into your own heart and you see the guilt of a past life. And you live in fear or terror of that past life, not wanting it to creep up and take hold of your present. Or you see how your heart is being bound up and led to places you don’t want to go because those sins you crave are becoming easier to access, easier to keep hidden, or even just more easily accepted today. And so, you hold out. You hole up where you are, arm yourself with as much of God’s word as you can and pray that Christ comes to rescue you before the darkness consumes you too.

But is that how Christ wants you to live? Is ours a faith of timidity and fear? Is that why Christ went to all those lengths for you – carefully plotting out the course of history since the beginning of time so that he can simply run an evacuation mission? Is he only the King of heaven and not the king of earth? Is your faith in him only meaningful once you have died or when he returns? No! Even now “he has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev 1:6). As priests you have the privilege of approaching God directly on your own behalf and on behalf of others. As members of his kingdom you have peace knowing that even now he directs every event in your life – only allowing in your life things that will serve his kingdom of believers – you included. Because he reigns, you reign with him. And make no doubt about it, despite any injustices you endure now, despite the lows your life may come to, on the Last Day “he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Rev 1:7).

God isn’t losing. In fact, he’s already won. He’s not running an evacuation mission trying to save all those he can before the window closes. He knows those who are his. And as King of the heavens and the earth – Ruler over all powers – he sees to it that all his own are brought safely into his kingdom before He brings about the end. “So shall it be! Amen” (Rev 1:7) John says. This is the way God has planned it, so this is the way it’s going to be. There’s no changing it. There’s no usurping the King of kings. And if what came before wasn’t enough, Jesus himself speaks – for John to record and for you to hear: “I am the Alpha and the Omega” that is, the beginning and the end, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:8). So, when God promised long ago that he would send the seed of a woman to crush the serpents head, he meant it. And when Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” he really did it. And now when we hear him speak of the future in the present tense, “he is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7), he is coming for you, to greet you with “grace” and “peace,” you have no reason to doubt! “So shall it be! Amen” (Rev 1:7).

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Hope on the Horizon (November 18, 2018)

November 19, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Hope on the Horizon

Daniel 12:1-3

It’s End Time. Not just the season of the church year we are in, but also the time of history. When Jesus talked about his return, he mentioned some signs that would signal his return – Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, Gospel going into the world. All these things are happening around us. We talked about that a couple weeks ago. Jesus gave these signs so that you know to be ready! He also gave these signs as a call for urgency. The time is short! Christ is coming. Share God’s Word and shine with the light of the Gospel so that many more may be saved!

How’s that going? How’s the “light shining” business? Do you feel like you, yourself, or even Christianity in general is shining very brightly around the world? How about right here in our own nation? Are we making progress and casting aside dark shadows? Or, are we simply holding out as the light of the Gospel seems to grow dimmer and dimmer?

The Prophet Daniel was actually ministering to people in a very similar situation as us here today. It started out with the nation of Israel itself glowing with God’s promises as a beacon of hope and salvation! But due to their unfaithfulness and stubbornness – constantly giving up the light of the gospel for false beacons of hope in other religions – God finally had to discipline his nation and refine true believers from false believers. He did that in a strange way. You might think that God would bring about a great reform or send powerful prophets to bring them back in line with God’s word. Which he did. But their stubbornness was so great that they ignored and even mistreated God’s prophets. So as of refiner’s fire destroys impurities and leaves behind only the pure silver, God used Babylon to melt down the nation of Israel and he scattered them among the unbelieving world.

And here’s what it looked like, the Babylonians would deport large groups of people into other parts of their empire. What you have left, then, is little islands of cultures all surrounding one another. And within their cultural island the Israelites would have their beacon of hope, the promise that one day God would bring them back home. In some places this promise, this light, was snuffed out by the cultures around them as they slowly integrated into the world where they now lived. But in other places, that beacon of light shone bright despite the darkness around them. Take for example three men by the name of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They refused to give in to the culture around them. They refuse to bow down to a statue worshipping a king. They refused to give up the promise by abandoning God. And God did not fail them. His promise prevailed. They trusted him and knew that even if they would face their death here at the fiery furnace, they knew that God would still keep his promise and bring them to their eternal home. Or take Daniel, for instance, who was threatened by the culture around him as they told him he could not pray. Did he give in? Did he forsake the promise that had held him so long? No. He even faced lions despite giving up that beacon of hope that he had. And God’s promise prevailed. How many other pockets of believers, islands surrounded by a dark sea, were there? How many other islands that perhaps didn’t have magnificent stories like Daniel or the three other men, yet they held onto that promise that God would one day bring them to home? They passed down that promise, that hope on the horizon, from generation to generation until finally God’s promise prevailed. And despite appearances, he knew exactly those who were his. He picked them out from the sea of people that surrounded them – many of whom looked, dressed, and talked just like them. But God knew those who were his, and his promise to them prevailed. A remnant was brought back to the Promised Land.

Does that sound like what you are facing in your day to day life? I hope that in your circle of friends and family you have pockets of people who still cling to God’s promise, but surrounding these pockets we live in a largely unbelieving world. There are many who have no problem living and interacting with you, despite not believing the promises of God. But it seems like more and more there are people who are hostile to God and threaten to take away the promise and snuff out the Gospel. They threaten the society we live in. They threaten our livelihood. They may even threaten your home or your very life. I don’t think we are there yet, but we aren’t too many steps away. And does that in any way change the promise that God has given you? Despite the darkness closing in, does that mean the light of the promise grows any dimmer for you?

Like the Israelites living in Babylon you may feel like an island in this vast and dark world. As you cling desperately to the promise you may feel like the light of the promise is getting dim. Perhaps you have slowly reduced the beacon of the promise that your lighthouse casts. Because what’s the point? We are becoming more and more outnumbered. At least in our nation Christians are becoming fewer and fewer. In fact, doesn’t Jesus even say that the world will become more and more ungodly? Are we ourselves at risk of being snuffed out? No. As God did for the Israelites living in Babylon, he knows those who were his. His record of the remnant prevailed, and he did not lose a single one of his own. The same is true for you and I today. Although we see the darkness closing in, God knows those who are his. His record will prevail. Daniel says, “There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then” (Dan 12:1). Yet despite this great distress, “At that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered” (Dan 12:1).

Your names are written in “the book,” that is, the “Book of Life.” They are already recorded in the book by the blood of the Lamb – the blood by which God cleansed you from all impurity, refined you, and made you his own. He knows you by name, and he’s recorded your name in his book of life. EVERYONE whose name is found written in the book will be delivered. For the Israelites, that meant that at God’s appointed time – no sooner, and no later – God would bring his own people out of the darkness of Babylon and back to the Promised Land. For you, for all believers, it means that at God’s appointed time – no sooner, and no later – God will bring you out of this darkening world and into the Promised Land of heaven – your true home. There’s no changing the record. It stands for all time. Christ died for you and he will deliver you.

There will come a time when God will finally makes good on his promise. Yet even for those who do not live to see the day, hope is surely on the horizon. And those who live their lives faithfully in view of this hope will be honored.

Not every Israelite who was taken into captivity under the Babylonians would live to see the dawn of that hopeful day when they were allowed to return home. In fact, a vast number of Israelites did not live to see that day. But they patiently endured as they held onto that promise of hope. Many settled down and made a life for themselves in Babylon as God commanded them through the prophet Jeremiah, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters… Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jer 29:5-7). Their patient endurance spoke volumes to those around. Without having to combat the darkness around them or forcefully take it on, their faithfulness to the promise shone through them. Take, for example, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who weren’t trying to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. But they wouldn’t forsake the promise and bend to his will either. They refused to bow. They willingly accepted the punishment for their actions, and God decided it wasn’t their time to come home yet. Rather, he preserved them in the fiery furnace and the light of the promise shone through them into the dark places of Nebuchadnezzar’s heart. He even had a change of heart. “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own” (Dan 3:28-29). And they were honored by this king.

The same went for Daniel, who refused to give up prayer – his connection to God – despite being threatened with the lions’ den. Yet it wasn’t time for him to be called to his heavenly home either. God preserved him among the lions so that King Darius would issue a decree, “that in every part of [his] kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. ‘For he is the living God and he endures forever… He rescues and saves’” (Dan 3:26-27). And Daniel was honored by this king. Yet even though there were many others who probably did die at the brutality of Babylon – or simply in old age – did they ever lose their honor? Could it ever be taken from them? God says through Daniel, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12:3).

You can’t ever take a believer’s hope. You can’t ever take their honor. Because God’s promise always prevails. Even as the world grows darker, even still the promise of hope that you cling to shines with a never waning brightness. At times God decides to cast that light out into the darkness through you. Other times, he simply preserves the promise among you for your own honor. But just think, for every one of you gathered here today, there was a time that you were in darkness. Somewhere in your life, God decided to have the light of another shine in your life. I actually tried to trace this back in my family. The light of the promise that I possess stretches back at least to my great-great grandparents, who passed that light down to my great grandparents, and to my grandma, to my father, to myself, and I am currently shining the light of the promise in my children’s lives.

So even though it may seem hopeless to shine the light into the world, hold on to that promise. The promise of hope on the horizon – the hope of eternal honor in heaven. Safeguard it in your life no matter how dark it gets. Because that light will guide you home, and you never know who else it will guide home. It has faithfully guided my great-great grandparents, and my great grandparents, and most of my grandparents home. And it will continue to guide generations of my family home until the dawn of the Last Day comes. And God only knows who else. And then, we will really shine! You will really shine! “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12:3).

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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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