Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Where’s Jesus? (May 13, 2018)

May 14, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Where’s Jesus?

Luke 24:44-53

A couple weeks ago I was playing a quick round of Where’s Waldo with the catechism students as others were finishing up their tests. After searching for several minutes, they began asking if Waldo was even in the picture. There was visible frustration as they carefully searched with no sight of Waldo. I’ll admit, I wasn’t able to find Waldo either. But when we were about to give up, one of the students spotted him! And even though they wouldn’t give up his location, just knowing that he was somewhere in the picture spurned on the other students and gave them renewed zeal to find Waldo for themselves.

Does your life ever feel like a game of Where’s Waldo? Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we no longer have the comfort and assurance of his visible presence with us, and yet he promised, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Despite that promise, sometimes it just feels like Jesus isn’t in the picture. Sometimes we search and search for him, and only become even more frustrated and hopeless when we can’t seem to find him. So where is he? Where’s Jesus?

As Jesus and his disciples stood upon the Mount of Olives, he reminded them, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk 24:44). A lot has been written about Jesus and his work as the Messiah. A lot has happened to Jesus too. In fact, a lot of his work as the Messiah took place within sight of where he now stood with his disciples! The disciples could clearly see Jerusalem from where they stood, the city that scorned and rejected Jesus. In fact, it was from this very hill that Jesus mourned, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). At the base of this hill was the Garden of Gethsemane, where one of his friends betrayed him and the rest abandoned him in his time of need. From this hill you could also see Golgotha where stubborn sinners crucified the one who came to save them. But from that hill, you could also see the empty tomb of the victorious Messiah. And from this very hill where the disciples stood, from a hill which still stands tall next to Jerusalem, our risen Savior also ascended to heaven as a triumphant and victorious king. Despite all that happened to him, despite all the terrible things that the Word said would happen to him, he ascended as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Sometimes, the problem is not that Jesus is nowhere to be found in the picture of our lives, but rather, that we look at the picture in the wrong way. One place where we can find Jesus is in his Word, in promises like, “Surely I am with you always” (Mt 28:20), and “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rm 8:28). But then we look for these promises in our lives and there seems to be such a disconnect. Where was God when my car was stolen, money was already tight, and now I have no way to get to school or work? Where was God when I’m working all the hours I can just to keep my head above water and then he lands me flat on my back in the hospital for an unplanned, extended stay? What about the recurring struggles in this marriage? What about the severe illness or death of my loved one? How are these things working for my good?! Or am I just not included among the ones who love God?

Did you know that Jesus foretold his torment and his death a number of times to his disciples before it happened? Not only did the Scriptures say that the Messiah would suffer and die, but Jesus directly told his disciples that it was all going to happen. And yet, he didn’t leave them hanging. Each time he also told them that “On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:19). The disciples, however, were still surprised at the fact that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. And the saddest part is that they didn’t even remember the words of hope he gave to see them through. “On the third day he will be raised to life!”

It’s like they were suffering from the Mandela Effect. The Mandela Effect is the unexplained phenomenon where a whole group of people share a memory that is actually incorrect. This phenomenon got its name from an example where people were certain that Nelson Mandela died in prison back in the 80s, when really he died in 2013 after being released from prison. Other examples would be whether or not the Monopoly man has a monocle; whether Oscar Mayer is spelled “M-A-Y…” or “M-E-Y…”; and even whether the Mona Lisa is smiling or emotionless. It seems that the disciples all forgot completely that Jesus said he would rise again.

This same Mandela Effect takes a toll on us as well when we forget the context in which Jesus spoke some of these uplifting promises. “Surely I am with you always” (Mt 28:20) is spoken just before Jesus ascended into heaven, so we know that his presence with us is going to be very different than it was for the disciples. And he speaks those words when giving his disciples the Great Commission – when he commissions them to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So what he’s saying is primarily that he goes with you as you proclaim the Gospel. He goes with you to bring hearts to faith. He goes with you despite the rejections that you will face. And that passage that says, “in all things God works for good” (Rm 8:28), that promise from God’s word is spoken in the midst of a section regarding present suffering and future glory. The author is writing about our weaknesses, and the challenges that we will face in life, but then gives that anchor of hope: God is working through even these difficult things. God will bring about his plan and ultimately, your future hope rests securely and certainly in heaven.

How eye-opening that must have been for the disciples who stood on that Mount of Olives, perhaps looking at and remembering all the things that happened to Jesus just a stone’s throw away. And yet, now they stand here with their risen and victorious Savior. God certainly does work out all things for good. And Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45). Literally, he opened their minds so they could “piece together” or “bring together” the Scriptures. God’s Word is always to be taken as a whole. And so are our lives. Because there will be times when you are crying out “Where’s Jesus?” It may seem at times like he’s nowhere on the page of your life, but he is! He’s right there in his Word. Remember that his Word says you will face challenges from time to time. But it also gives you anchors of hope to keep you rooted in those challenging times. Bring it all together, in his Word and in your life, so that you can find traces of Jesus on every page.

There’s something else that Jesus gives you as well to keep you going even when it seems like Jesus is not in the picture. He gives you his witnesses. It’s like when you are playing Where’s Waldo, and when you are about to give up someone finds Waldo! Suddenly everyone else playing is encouraged. Their vigor is renewed. And often, the anticipation of finding him is also heightened.

Jesus has given you his witnesses in a number of different ways. First, there’s everything that has been written in the Scriptures; all the narratives of individuals struggling through the difficult times (just like you!) and ending up victorious with Christ. The biggest example, and our primary source of comfort, of course, comes through Jesus. He’s the one who dealt with the only struggle we should really be worrying about, and that is the struggle against sin and Satan. Sadly, I think this struggle often takes a back seat to many of the other, more tangible struggles we face in life. In an attempt to make your struggle with sin more tangible, I’m going to flip the narrative a little bit. And by doing this, I’m not trying to allegorize; that is, I’m not turning the account of Jesus into a mere story that we are to learn from. But I think we can perhaps better our grasp on sin when we see it in this sense.

So, picture Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, as your heart. Jesus himself said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). That’s true of you and I as well. Jesus longs to bring you to him, but in your sinfulness, you were not willing. And yet, he went in anyway. He went into your sinful heart just like he went into sinful Jerusalem. And just as Jerusalem wasn’t too happy about that – persecuting, rebelling against, and even attempting to silence Jesus – so also your sinful heart and my sinful heart was not too happy about Jesus entering in. My sin fought against him. My sin tried to silence him. My sin even crucified him. But Jesus would not give up. As he shattered the grave and rose victorious so also he has shattered my hard heart and rose victorious over my sin. Paying for it completely and earning a spot for me with him in heaven. Jesus does not give up on you in the struggle against sin – not when he paid so dearly just to share his life with you. Jesus is there with you. Jesus will win.

And he’s there with you in the other struggles as well. Take a look at how he has always been with his people. Sometimes it’s hard to picture, because we know the narratives of the people in the Bible. We already know that they triumphed through their earthly struggles because God saw them through it. But place yourself right in the middle of the narrative for a moment. How would it feel to be Noah, building an ark for years without any sign of God’s declared judgment? How would it feel as literally the whole rest of the world was against you and against God at this time? How would it feel to be Daniel, living in a God-less land, threatened with death if you continued your regular routine of prayer? How does it feel to be Mary or Martha the day that their brother died? Yes, they had hope in the resurrection on the last day, but that loss was still tearing them up inside.

Do you ever feel like some of these people you read about in the Bible? If so, good! Keep reading, because that isn’t the end of their story. Read on to hear how God did indeed bring judgment upon the world, but spared the lives of every believer – Noah, and his family. Read on to hear how Daniel continued to pray, met the punishment that was threatened, and yet God brought him through. In fact, hear the words of Daniel’s friends who faced very similar circumstances in the fiery furnace. They said, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it… but even if he does not… we will not serve your gods” (Dan 3:16-18). They didn’t know the outcome of their story yet! And yet they remained firm because God anchored them in his Word and in his witnesses. And although the story ended very well for these people, including Mary and Martha whose brother, Lazarus, was raised from the dead, they also had their fair share of struggles that God did not immediately rescue them from. Even Lazarus died again, the same fate that every one of us will eventually face. Yet because of Jesus’ victory in his life, it’s not the end of your story. Today, as you face the difficulties you are currently enduring, it’s not the end of your story. And down the road, even as you face death, it’s not the end of your story. Because of Jesus’ victory in his life, you already know the end of your story. It’s eternal life with Jesus in heaven. All the details in between will bring you on a series of ups and downs, twists and turns, but your ending will never change. His Word and his witnesses attest to that!

Then there’s also the witnesses he’s placed in your life, to write their story right alongside you. And even though you may be asking “Where’s Jesus” on your page, they may be able to point him out on their own page. This isn’t to make you sad or jealous. It’s to encourage you and remind you that Jesus is still here in this world. He’s still working and bringing about his plan. So share your experiences with others. Share the times when Jesus has shown up on your page to remind others that Jesus is still very much present in this world, and very much at work for every one of his children. His presence, though, is just different. Since he visibly ascended into heaven we are reminded that we won’t always see him in the ways we might want to see him. Yet, at the same time, since he sits in a place of power in heaven, we are also reminded that he rules over everything in this world so that it all goes according to his plan. Yes, even the challenging things.

Where’s Jesus? He’s there. Keep looking. Find him in his Word where he shows you how all things are coming together for your good. Find him in his witnesses who’s stories you have already seen the ending to. And find him in his world by pointing him out to others for their encouragement.

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What is Love? (May 6, 2018)

May 7, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

What is Love?

John 15:9-17

“Love each other” (Jn 15:17). “Love each other as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Look around you. Go ahead, turn your head and look around at the people sitting in this room with you. The people you see here are some of the faces that Jesus was talking about when he said, “Love each other.” Only some of the faces, though. The rest are the billions of people out in the world. But that’s such a huge scope that I’m going to narrow it down. Just think of the people in this room for now, the people you just looked at. You can close your eyes if it helps as I ask you these questions. Are there reasons in your mind that might prevent you from showing love to so-and-so? Do you know something about that other person, perhaps something they did to you or said to you, that makes it hard to love them? Now forget about it. Forget about the things that person did to you. Forget about all the reasons you might have to withhold your love, because the command of Jesus is very simple, “Love each other” (Jn 15:17). There’s no conditions: “Love each other if they…” There’s now limitations: “Love each other, but only until…” Jesus just says, “Love each other.” Love is to be one-sided in motivation.

Love loves because it loves to love – not because of any factor coming from the other person. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, right? If only we could just flip a switch, put a lock on it, and keep on loving till the cows come home. Our sinful weakness makes it very difficult, if not impossible to love as Jesus commands – to love with one-sided motivation. We feel the unbalance of pouring out love into everyone else. Eventually we run empty and feel the unbalance. We lose our drive to love when it feels like our love is only one-sided. Do you ever feel like that?

If that’s you – or rather, when that’s you, because it happens to every one of us – listen to what Jesus says. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (Jn 15:9). When you feel like you are running on empty, like you have nothing more to pour out because nothing has been poured into you, then turn to Jesus. He’s the one who can, who has, loved perfectly. He is not weakened by the sin that causes our love to run dry because he is perfect. He pours out his love night and day. He pours out his love without considering whether a person deserves it or not. He pours out his love in a way that is accessible to anyone, anytime. I picture a waterfall cascading down the rocks that you can go to any time. When your bucket is empty because you’ve been pouring out your love, go to the unending flow of love that Jesus pours out and fill up your bucket with his love. His love is the agape love. It’s the purest form of love. It’s warm and heartfelt. It’s steadfast and sure. That’s why he adds at the end of his command, ”Remain in my love” (Jn 15:9). He knows that you need to fill up constantly, so remain in his love so that you have something to pour into each other.

But then we have the catch. There’s always a catch, right? Jesus said, “Remain in my love” (Jn 15:9), but then immediately goes into, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” (Jn 15:10). That’s the catch, right? Jesus’ love for us is really just a utilitarian love. He pours out love on us as long as we keep his commands. That’s what it seems like at first, but keep reading. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). The purpose of obeying his commands is not for him to benefit. It’s so that you benefit even more. It’s so that your joy may be complete!

Jesus knows and experiences the joy of keeping God’s commands, and he wants you to experience that same joy by obeying his commands! This is completely contrary to what the unbelieving world would tell you. Even that sinful part in ourselves tells us that the greatest joy is having it our own way – doing whatever we want. But Jesus tells you that complete joy, the fullest experience of joy, is found in Christ. Part of that is because God only wants what his best for you. He wants to give you every blessing and provide what is truly best for you. He’s pouring it out, but when we step away from that flow of blessings, we miss out on what he has to offer. The other part of complete joy, found only in Christ, is having a friend who would literally do anything for you.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Jesus himself demonstrated the greatest extent of true love for you when he laid down his life in your place; his life for yours. This is more than just a friend who always covers the bill at lunch. This is more than just a friend who stands with you and endures the consequences with you. He pushed you out of harm’s way and took the blow completely onto himself. And it was more than just physically taking the bullet or jumping on a grenade – so to speak. He took on the death that a person really ought to fear: eternal death in hell. He paid the ultimate sacrifice. His love for you is completely one-sided. There is no catch. It’s not based on anything you have done. It doesn’t go away when you mess up. His love is sure and steadfast. It is always warm and heartfelt. Remain in that love.

Why is it, then, that we at times feel like we are running on empty – that we are unbalanced in pouring out love? Often it’s because we forget to turn to Jesus. We forget to crack open our Bibles or devotion books and hold our buckets under the flood of love pouring out of Jesus each and every day. If you ever feel unbalanced, then consider just how off balanced your love really is. But not because you are pouring out and pouring out and pouring out. Your love is unbalanced because Christ is pouring in, pouring in, pouring in. The truth is, you will always feel off balanced if you are doing love correctly. But the off balance will come from the bucket which never runs empty no matter how much you pour out, because Jesus is always filling it back up.

There’s another part of love that Jesus discusses next. Love is also beneficial in application. What I mean is, when someone loves you, you will benefit greatly from it. When Aristotle was attempting to define friendship, he noted that the true mark of friendship is that it consists more of loving than being loved. Think about that as you hear what Jesus calls you. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). Jesus calls you his friend. You are the one he is going to love without considering what he gets in return. And being his friend, there are many benefits that go along with it.

There’s a big difference between being a servant and a friend. A servant simply does the work that is asked of him and doesn’t always get the privilege of knowing why he does the work. A friend, however, is on much different terms. Friends share all kinds of things about their lives. Friends tell each other the reasons behind what they do. They are open and free with each other. So as a friend of Jesus, you know what keeping his commands is really about. It’s about living according to God’s will because you know and understand that he has the best in mind for you. You trust that your friend Jesus would never be unfair to you – unless, of course, the unfairness is on his part as he lavishes his love upon you.

Understand just how unfair your friendship with Jesus is. Jesus chose you to be his friend even when you weren’t worthy of friendship – especially not his. Remember when I asked you to think about the people in this room, and the reasons you might have for not loving them? Now think about all the reasons Jesus has for not loving you. I am sinful. I know it, and yet I’m devious about my sin and try to hide it. I’m a repeat offender. Even though Jesus graciously forgives my sin, once I’m cleansed I run right back to it. In fact, it may even look like I am simply using that connection with Jesus as a get out of jail free card. And the Bible calls me out on it saying that I was an enemy of God. And yet, Jesus keeps on loving you with that one-sided kind of love that is all for your benefit. “You did not choose me,” he said, “but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). He chose you, knowing you completely, warts and all. But that is what you and I were. He chose you. And when he chose you, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 6:11). He cleaned you up and made you the best version of yourself through your friendship with Jesus

Think about what that friendship with Jesus means. What a friend we have in Jesus. We just sang that at the beginning of this service. Is there any other friend that could match up with Jesus? He is the friend who is always there when you need him. Always there to help, and always there to listen. He’s the kind of friend who knows you, and understands what you are going through or what you are feeling even without you even saying a word. He always gives you the right advice. In fact, he’s even the friend that will give you the kind of advice that’s hard to hear when he knows you need to hear it. Your friend, Jesus, never lets you down. He even receives you into his home. That means you are welcomed into his eternal, heavenly home. But it also means something else; something to keep you going on this side of eternity. It means you have access to the Father. “So that whatever you ask in [Jesus’] name the Father will give you” (Jn 15:16).

Now that you know what love is, “Love each other” (Jn 15:17). And to do that you are going to have to remain in Christ’s love. Fill up on his love every day so that you can pour it into others without worrying about whether they deserve it or if you will be loved in return. Pour out love in ways that benefit and help others because it’s a testament to what your friend Jesus did for you. He did everything for your benefit. And there is no end to his love.

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Stay Connected to the Life (April 29, 2018)

May 3, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Stay Connected to the Life

John 15:1-8

Perhaps you’ve heard the news recently about a little boy from England named Alfie Evans. Alfie was admitted into the hospital when he was only 7 months old after suffering seizures. He’s been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition, though the doctors are still stumped. For over a year Alfie has been kept alive by life support systems which help him breathe, eat, and remain hydrated. However, after seeing no signs of improvement, the court has ordered that Alfie be taken off life support. They could make this order because Alfie was on government healthcare. There was a huge battle between Alfie’s parents and the court leading up to that decision. Yet what grabs even more attention is that even after life support had been removed, Alfie continued to live – defying the health professionals’ predictions!

Now, there’s a whole political angle that the news has been talking about with all of this, but I’m not going to go that direction. I just marvel at the fact that despite removing the machines that were supposedly keeping Alfie alive, he kept on living! It’s almost as if there’s more going on here than meets the eye! And in fact, there definitely is more going on here than meets the eye. It is God alone who decides how long a person’s life should be. It is God who determines when a person dies. And despite a health professional’s best estimates, every person’s life is in God’s hands. He is the one behind it all. He is the one who truly gives and supports life.

Why is that? Why does God determine the length of a person’s days? Why does he give differing lengths of time to different people? Well, first you have to realize that God is not obligated to give any length of life. He said quite clearly to the first person who ever lived, he said to Adam that the consequence of sin is death. And when Adam fell into sin, he could have ended it right there. The Bible also says clearly about you and I, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). You and I were born sinful and therefore also deserve death right off the bat. But God is merciful by giving you a length of days. He is loving by giving you a chance to get to know salvation through Jesus our Savior. And that’s because it is not your physical life here and now that is the most important. It’s not simply for the sake of your physical life that God supports your life. No, there is a far more important, eternal life which God is concerned about. Therefore, he sustains your physical life so that you can have a spiritual life connected to him. “I am the vine” (Jn 15:5), Jesus says. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

So, we are going to talk about that kind of life support today. Not simply that Jesus sustains you physically, but most importantly, that he sustains you spiritually! He uses the example of a vine supporting and sustaining its branches, which is very similar to how life support systems support and sustain the life of a person. The important part that Jesus stresses is to stay connected to Jesus – Jesus, who calls himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Stay connected to the Life because that connection is vital for you. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine” (Jn 15:4). How fitting these verses are this time of year when we are getting out and perhaps doing some gardening ourselves. Maybe you are planting and pruning and weeding. Me, right now I’m trying to keep up with the weeds in the lawn. Mainly because I don’t have much else to garden, but also because I don’t really know what to prune, and I don’t want to kill my shrubs. But there’s something you will notice if you’ve done some gardening – in fact it’s something you count on. When you prune off those suckers on your trees, or when I pull my weeds, I like to lay them in a pile on the patio so that they will get scorched by the sun and die off. Weeds can’t survive when they are uprooted just like suckers and branches can’t survive when they are pruned off the tree. It’s the main trunk of the tree, or the “vine” in Jesus’ illustration, that provide lifegiving sap for the survival of every branch and limb. And that is what Jesus is saying about you as well. When you remain in him, you will thrive and be fruitful. But if you are cut off from him, you will wither and die; first spiritually and eventually physically.

Now, you might be thinking, well that’s really harsh that God would cut off branches that do not bear fruit. Why doesn’t he give them a chance, why doesn’t he wait and see? First, we need to realize who the gardener is – who it is that’s in charge of the pruning. It’s God the Father – God who sees all things and knows all things. Also called the Father because his love is poured out generously and patiently. Second, realize that the word used here for “gardener” is really talking about the person who “tills the soil.” Work is implied; hard, strenuous work. He’s not just a gardener who prunes off a little here and a little there for looks and then moves onto the next tree. No, he’s the one who’s working the soil and doing all he can to help this vine and all its branches thrive! He cares about every limb, branch, and twig, doing all that he can to help even the littlest twig thrive. But when that twig becomes diseased and starts to die, even after he tends to it and tries to graft it on in another place doing all he can to get it to thrive – only after all that work has been put in with still no evidence of a true connection, only then does he remove it for the good of all the other branches.

You can actually think of this on two different levels and in a very interesting way. You know those shoots that will sometimes sprout up from the base of a tree or even from other branches? Usually you trim them off before they get to big. Those are called “suckers.” They are called suckers because they suck nutrients out from the tree and take away from all the other branches. On one level you can think of the whole tree as yourself, and these suckers are all the little things that suck your time, and your resources, and your abilities. It could be things like sports leagues, or working for a promotion, or even a hobby that you enjoy doing. And the important thing to remember is that these aren’t necessarily bad things. But they become bad things when they suck away your time for sitting at the feet of your Lord as it was for Martha who busied herself with preparing the dinner and tried to suck Mary away from listening to Jesus. They become bad things when they suck you away from the support of fellow believers, as was the case with Judas who was busy pursuing money rather than cherishing a fellowship with fellow believers. Think about all the different things that you fill your day and your week with. And then determine whether any of those things are sucking away your spiritual welfare. If there are spiritual “suckers” in your life, cut them out! Or at least trim them back to a manageable level. Because it is your spiritual welfare that is the most important thing in this life. It’s that connection which Jesus is referring to when he says, “remain in me and I in you.” That connection is vital to life.

Now, on the second level – so level one is the individual level, now, level two is your place among every other person. I’ll call it the “kingdom level.” And they are related. If, on the individual level you allow all these suckers to sap your life away so that you are an unproductive branch that bears no fruit, then on the kingdom level, eventually you will be cut off from God’s kingdom and left to wither and die like those weeds being scorched on my back patio. You don’t want that. You don’t want to get to a point where God has tilled your soil, given you attention and tended to your needs, trying to prune off your suckers with no response. Because when there is no response, it means that there is really no connection at all. You might label yourself a Christian, just like a branch might appear to be part of the whole tree, but if there are no fruits of faith in your life, then it proves that your connection to Christ is really a fake one, and eventually you will be cut off and left spiritually dead.

That’s why Jesus urges his disciples saying, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine” (Jn 15:4). And then he also says of his disciple, and to you, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3). I’m very happy to see all of you branches with me here today, gathered around God’s Word! It means you have cut off anything that could be sucking you away from your time connected to the true Vine. You are here because you know his words are vitally important for your spiritual wellbeing. You are here because you know you have not always produced good fruit. But through your confession all that rotten fruit is laid at Jesus’ feet to be completely removed and destroyed. You are here because you know that you can only produce good fruit if Christ is living in you. And being connected to him through his word you then can produce fruits of faith which are pleasing in God’s eyes! You have been declared righteous by your connection to Christ. And the message that you hear each and every Sunday, the words from God himself are that all your sins have been forgiven! You are spiritually alive and healthy. You are cleaned from all the disease of sin. And you are fruitful through your connection to Christ!

The last verse in this section caught me a little by surprise. To me it seemed to be a little disconnected – like a “glory be to the Father” we seemingly arbitrarily pin on to the Psalms that we sing. To be clear, giving God glory at the end of each Psalm we sing is not at all arbitrary. But I’ll save that topic for another time. I thought that last verse seemed kind of random because Jesus is deep in an illustration of being connected to him, the vine, and then suddenly jumps back from that illustration and says, “This is to my Father’s glory” (Jn 15:8). But I understood the connection when I remembered something that often takes place on the corner of Marlandwood and 31st.

I think it’s on Sunday afternoons that a man selling Bonsai trees sets up his display right outside the Caesar’s Pizza on Marlandwood and 31st. I hope he does it again today so that you all can see it! Whenever I see those bonsai trees I think to myself, “Wow, that man is very skilled to prune those little trees so nicely.” Do you see what takes place? I gave the gardener credit, not the trees. I gave him glory for pruning those trees so nicely. It’s the same that takes place in your life. As your heavenly Father, the divine Gardener, trims and prunes your life – cutting out unnecessary suckers so that you can thrive – it gives all glory to him! When you bear all kinds of spiritual fruit in what you do and what you say, you show yourselves to be his disciples – branches that are connected to him. And that gives him glory and honor.

Stay connected to the way, the truth, and the life. Stay connected to the true vine. It’s vitally important to your spiritual wellbeing. And as you remain connected to the true vine, remember that there is going to be some pruning involved. Sometimes that pruning hurts a little as God cuts off the suckers that maybe you aren’t willing to let go of. But trust him. It’s all in your best interest. As he prunes he also strengthens your connection to the vine so that you become even more fruitful in your faith. All of this gives God glory.

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I am the Good Shepherd (April 22, 2018)

April 23, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

I am the Good Shepherd

John 10:11-18

Have you ever thought about what it takes to survive on your own, living in the streets? That question was asked to a group of middle class pastors at a recent pastors’ conference that I attended. The conference was about ministering across cultures, and that question was aimed at helping a bunch of middle class men get into the mindset of someone in another culture – someone living in poverty. The goal was not to become that culture, but to learn how to sympathize with and begin to understand someone of another culture.

“Could you survive poverty?” was the question. “Check all that apply” it said. Here’s the list: “I know which churches and parts of town have the best rummage sales.” “I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins to check for expired food.” “I know how to keep my clothes from being stolen at the laundromat.” “I know how to get someone out of jail.” “I know how to look for problems with a used car.” “I know how to live without electricity or a phone.” “I know what to do when I don’t have money to pay the bills.” There were 17 statements like this, and I think I could only check about 6 of them. Needless to say, I would be completely hopeless if left on my own. Maybe, in your own situation, even if you aren’t living in poverty, you have some big hurdles that you deal with every day as well.

Thankfully, we have Jesus as our Good Shepherd. In times of need, when you don’t have enough; in times of danger or disaster; in times of conflict and strife when you feel like you are out on your own, alone and exposed Jesus turns your focus to him, “I AM the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11). He actually says it twice here, at the beginning of each paragraph. And that “I am” stands out in emphasis. “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11). You are secure in the fold of Jesus.

Jesus uses a simple illustration to bring home his point so vividly. His audience was very familiar with the work of a shepherd and the importance of that profession. I think we can still relate today – at least in knowledge, maybe not by experience. If you know anything about sheep, you know that they have a reputation for being docile, harmless, and rather stupid. In fact, during storms they have been known to pile up in the corner of their pasture, smothering one another to death. If a sheep stumbles and falls into a ditch and lands on its back, it is helpless to right itself and stand up again. Sheep have no fangs and no claws to defend themselves. The fact is, sheep are helpless without a shepherd.

And Jesus draws an important distinction to flesh out what kind of a shepherd he is. He says, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep” (Jn 10:12). Hired hands in those days were simply watching over the sheep to earn a paycheck. It was simply a job for them. And you could almost hear the hired hand complaining about “the lousy hours, the poor pay, and smelly working conditions.” Since this is the case then, at the first sight of danger, “When he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it” (Jn 10:12). This illustration of the hired hands was a description of the Pharisees of Jesus day who cared only about their position and strict adherence to the law to the exclusion of the sheep they were called to serve. Think of the tragic response to Judas’ confession of betraying innocent blood. “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility” (Mt 27:4) they replied. The wolf attacked. The hired hand was no help. And the helpless sheep ran to his death.

Jesus is not the hired hand. “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11) he said. “I am the shepherd that cares for his sheep. Our word “good” is quite generic and bland. Greek has a number of different words for good. The word used here is not just “good” like good cake. It’s not “good” like good work on a test. The word used for “Good Shepherd” is “excellent,” “the very best,” with respect to both his personal character and the work that he does. Jesus is the only one “good” enough to merit this high mark of praise from the Father, who demands perfection. The Father said of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt 17:5). And all that “goodness” of your shepherd, Jesus, is aimed at you, his sheep. When there are dangers that threaten your wellbeing, when there is conflict and strife between you and your loved ones, when your sin is exposed and you feel guilty, alone and helpless, Jesus cups your cheeks in his hands, looks you squarely in the eyes and says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). He is the one who has plans to prosper you despite dangers that threatens. He is the one who diffuses conflict and settles tensions. He is the one who died on the cross to pay for every one of your sins so that you no longer need to feel guilty, exposed, or helpless. You are secure in the fold of Jesus.

Hasn’t he told you in the Psalm we just sang, Psalm 23, that he will care and provide for his sheep? Do you remember that he teaches you in “the Parable of the Lost Sheep” that he will search for and go after you until he finds you (Lk 15:1-7)? Do you see, through eyes of faith, your good shepherd standing between you and danger – rescuing you from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear (1 Sm 17:34-36)? Your Good Shepherd is not like the hired hand. He is the Shepherd that cares, even making the ultimate sacrifice for you – laying down his life in your place.

Now, there is one important difference between Jesus and any other kind of shepherd. Because as you might imagine, a shepherd laying down his life for his sheep may not be such a good thing. Yes, it shows the lengths he would be willing to go to for his sheep. But a sacrifice by itself would not be enough. What good would it be for a shepherd to fight with a wolf and lose? If the shepherd is dead, the fight is lost, and the sheep are once again exposed and helpless with no one to save them. So, Jesus shows that he not only cares for the sheep above all else, but he also has the power to do something for them. He is also the shepherd that can.

This is evidenced by Jesus’ knowledge of the flock, you included. The verses just before what we read in the gospel reading shows that the sheep learn to know their master by his voice. They trust him. They follow him (Jn 10:3-5). And he knows and keeps track of every one of his sheep. He knows which ones are feeble. He knows which ones are sick. He knows which ones are about to give birth. He knows all this and much more about you, never forgetting or missing any detail of your life. The shepherd and the sheep get to know one another so well because they have been together so long and through so much! With all this in mind, drink in the deep comfort of hearing Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (Jn 10:14). He knows that life decision you are struggling with right now. He cares about how that last conflict made you feel. He’s with you in the struggle against that sin that seems to have such a hold on you. He is the shepherd you can depend on. He wants you to know how close he is to you, how completely he is your Shepherd and Savior. And he wants you to know that he is the shepherd that can. Whatever wolves you are facing right now, Jesus can and does keep you secure in his fold.

That’s because no one takes Jesus’ life away from him. He lays it down on his own accord. He has the authority to lay it down and the authority to take it up again. What’s really enlightening as you read these words is that Jesus spoke them about 6 months before he died on the cross and rose from the grave. No one overcame him. No one defeated him, or ruled over him. He willingly gave up everything, even his life, for you. He went into death voluntarily. And unlike any other shepherd, he already knew the outcome before it happened. There was never any doubt that he would die and rise. His love and purpose never wavered. He laid down his life by his own authority. His death, was the only death that actually means anything – that actually accomplished anything. And unlike any shepherd there ever was, he took his life back up to defeat your enemy, the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, by his death on the cross.

How is that so? A payment needed to be made for sin. Not to the devil, but to God, so to speak. You see, for God to be a just and holy God, he cannot tolerate sin. If he did, he wouldn’t be holy, and who’s to say we would be free from any kind of sin in heaven? Sin had to be addressed, and until it was, Satan could rightly accuse us of all our wrongdoing before God – pointing out the sin that separates us from God. But your Good Shepherd laid down his life, endured that separation from God on your behalf. And since sin has been completely paid for, Satan’s accusations fall on deaf ears. Your sins have been justly paid for.

But Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose from the dead, which in part assures us that his payment for sin was more than enough, but then also proves that death, the consequence of sin, has been defeated as well. Now when you die, it isn’t a hopeless and eternal death, but a doorway to eternal life! Your death too is swallowed up in the victory of life! Your Good Shepherd leads the way into heaven and you, trusting his voice, follow and are brought safely in. There is nothing in life, nothing even in death that can do you any kind of harm. You are secure in the fold of Jesus. He is the shepherd that cares for you like none other. And he is the shepherd that can do something about the very real dangers you face.

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Do I have what it takes? (April 15, 2018)

April 17, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Do I have what it takes?

2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6

Do I have what it takes? Have you ever asked yourself that question? I’ve asked myself that question a lot. It applies to simple things, like when I want to replace the brakes on my car and I only have one afternoon to do it. Do I have what it takes? Do I have the parts? Do I have the tools? Do I have the skills needed? This question also applies to much more complicated things. Do I have what it takes to uproot my family and move to another state? Do I have what it takes to get hired at that new job, and become a valuable employee? Do I have what it takes to retire and live on a fixed income? Do I have what it takes to support myself for another 10, 15, or 20 years. I think for almost any decision in life whether big or small you are asking yourselves that question.

But what about when you don’t have what it takes? What happens when there’s a gap between what you have and what it takes? Do you take a leap of faith? Do you fill that gap with hope? Do you better yourself to close that gap? Or do you take another course of action? I think any number of those solutions could apply in different circumstances.

The situation I want you to focus on today is proclaiming the gospel. God asks you, even commands you to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). In fact, here in Texas, our church body has an initiative: 10 new missions in 10 years. We call it Ten in Ten. And the encouragement for that initiative comes from something that Jesus said to his disciples. He said, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mk 1:38). Jesus was always on the move. He was always talking to and sharing the gospel with new people and he commissions you to do the same! Our purpose here at Trinity is not to turn inwardly and protect our own. Rather, it’s to go out and share this good news with others! That’s one of the reasons that Jesus appeared to his disciples again and again after he rose from the dead; so that they would not remain behind locked doors but have what it takes to go out and share the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead to save sinners. You are included in that commission. You also like the disciples, like Paul, are a missionary of the gospel! Do you have what it takes? Do you have what it takes to be a missionary of the gospel, and if not, do you know how you are going to fill the gap?

Well, what does it take to be a missionary of the gospel?

It takes heart, first of all. And you can see that heart in an interesting way in the first few verses of the section we are looking at today. The apostle Paul went to Troas to preach the gospel, and the Lord blessed that opportunity by opening a door for him – giving him some kind of “in,” some kind of opportunity that he could use to start sharing the gospel. But then, as soon as Paul arrives in Troas, he’s leaving! This isn’t like Paul. Paul would never pass up an opportunity to share the Gospel. This is Paul who would often preach the gospel in a city until he had to leave because the Jews threatened to kill him! This Paul was beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and even standing on trial he shared the gospel because he couldn’t pass up an opportunity. Why did he leave in such a hurry? It says, “I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them” (2 Cor 2:13).

Paul left simply because he couldn’t find his friend? You said mission work takes heart, but I thought it would be a heart for the gospel or a heart for the lost – not a heart for believing family and friends! What’s going on here? That’s exactly the right question. It is too bad that Paul passed up an opportunity to preach the gospel in Troas, but he was so agitated, so concerned that he just couldn’t focus on the ministry of the Gospel… at least not in Troas. His concern was for another group of people, the ones to whom this letter is addressed. Notice, that this is his second letter to the Corinthians. His first letter was a very stern letter. The Corinthians needed a lot of work. They had initially treated God’s Word lightly and were overcome with a number of sins. Paul preached God’s Word very sternly to them in his first letter so that they would see their need for and appreciate the life-changing words of the gospel. But Paul was worried about how his stern letter would be received. He knew he had to be stern with them, but he was worried about their reaction. So he sent Titus to go and check things out for him. How did they receive the letter? Any change in behavior? Have they been cut to the heart but then healed by the gospel? He was supposed to meet up with Titus in Troas to hear the report, but when Paul didn’t find him there, he went on to Macedonia in search of him and the news he would bring.

It’s explained in a strange way here, but Paul had such a concern for gospel ministry that he couldn’t focus on the work in front of him. His heart was somewhere else. He was concerned about how his proclamation of the gospel would tip the scales for the great number of believers in Corinth. Would they reject his rebuke and fall away, or would the heed his words and be changed by the gospel? Here on earth, that small tip one way or the other may simply appear to be a change in creeds, but looking at it from an eternal perspective, this would mean the difference between eternity in hell or eternity in heaven.

Have you ever felt that way? Have your heart gone out to someone or your concern for them been so high that you couldn’t focus on the task in front of you? Maybe it doesn’t always weigh on us as much as it should. Maybe we have become fairly numb to it because in all earthly respects, not much changes. Whether my neighbor is a Christian or not does not always appear to bring about great changes in his life. He’s still going to live in the same place. He’s still going to work at the same job. So why such a fuss? Why such a great concern? Take off your earthly glasses and put on your spiritual glasses for a moment. I wish there was such a thing. Because if we could only see what a person’s belief or unbelief is going to result in, our hearts would be immediately affected. Your concern for you friend or neighbor, your brother, sister, mom or dad would be greatly increased! I know you have a heart for these people in your life. I know that heart aches and longs for these people to hear and believe the good news! Look for the opportunities that God gives you. You don’t have to preach a sermon to them. But in your regular conversations, let them see your heart. Let them know about the difference Christ has made in your life.

Well, who am I to do all this work? I’m just one person, what difference can I make in a person’s life? Do I really have what it takes to change the heart of even just one person – let alone all the people I know who need to know their Savior?

Once again, this Bible reading answers those concerns in a very interesting way. The picture is a Roman victory parade – a triumphal march through the city. If you’ve never seen what that might have looked like, you can watch the old Ben-Hur movie or probably look on YouTube later today. But I’m going to try to describe it for you. The streets of the city are crowded with people, and I mean packed! The aroma of incense and flower petals is wafting through the air! Even without seeing the procession yet you know those smells well. They trigger memories of previous victories. And signal this as a joyous procession! The difficult thing to do, however, is to decide where your place is in this triumphant procession. Are you on the streets witnessing this? Are you a soldier proudly marching in victory? Or are you a former enemy who has been captured?

In a way, every one of us was formerly a hostile enemy of God. At some point in our lives, maybe even for just the first few days we were enemies of God and rejected his reign in our hearts. But here, Paul says, God “leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Cor 2:14). We have been “defeated,” so to speak, by the gospel. We have been taken captive by God and are part of his triumphal procession. But this is not a bad thing for us. God doesn’t want anyone to perish, he is not like the ruthless kings of the roman empire who would execute their captives. No, as those captured by God he rescues us from slavery to sin and death. He doesn’t rescue us only to enslave us once again or make us the lowest in all of Christendom. Rather, he rescues us, brings about a complete change in our hearts, and makes us heirs in his kingdom who then also go out with that same weapon he rescued us with – the message of the Gospel. So, are we the conquered marching behind Christ, the conqueror, in this triumphal parade? Yes, but he has also made us the honored soldiers of the gospel, able bodied men and women, who go out with the gospel to conquer and rescue even more. Therefore, we are the aroma of Christ to those who are being saved! We are the fragrance of life because we carry the message of the gospel! And with many bodies doing this together, we can have an impact on people’s lives!

But as we go out, armed with the gospel, there is one question we have to remember to ask ourselves. “Who is equal to such a task?” Paul asks (2 Cor 2:16). Who is the power behind us as a conquering force? Is it us ourselves? Do we go by our own power thinking to ourselves, “Well, this person is now a believer because of me. I can certainly go out and claim one more!” In a way, that’s what many false preachers were doing in Paul’s day. They would get letters of recommendation, stating what they had done and how they changed people’s hearts, and then take these letters to the next town to commend themselves as moving preachers! But Paul doesn’t do that. He doesn’t commend himself. His only recommendation is not ink on paper, but the Spirit living in human hearts! Paul says, “Don’t take my word for it, or even the word of those living in the previous town I preached in. Rather, look at them. Observe them. See how deeply and profoundly they have been changed! This isn’t something I do by myself, but God words through his Word to change hearts. I simply share the message faithfully!”

Therefore, he is confident wherever he goes. “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God” he says. “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Cor 3:4-5). All of this, the profound change in someone’s hear from unbelief to belief in their Savior, the courage to go out with the gospel, the heart for people and passion for the gospel, all of this is through Christ. Through Christ, the status of the Corinthians is changed before God. Through Christ, they have become a people washed clean in baptism, set apart from the unbelieving world, declared righteous and holy in the eyes of God. That letter of recommendation was one that Paul could carry with him everywhere he went. It was a letter not written in ink, but by the Spirit of God on human hearts. It showed that he was not here to tout his own skills as a missionary, but that he was here as a missionary, because God is with him and works through the word he shares.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you have what it takes to be a gospel missionary? You have the heart for the many who are still lost – who still need to be conquered and rescued by Christ who works through his word. You have a body and soul which has been completely changed by the Word living and active in your life! But even with just those two, there would be a large gap to fill between what it takes and what you have to give. Thankfully, God fills that gap with competence that comes from him. Competence that makes you far better equipped and far more effective than anything you could do on your own! So go with God. Share his word. And rejoice as he conquers and rescues, adding even more to his triumphal procession!

 

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Peace Be With You (April 8, 2018)

April 9, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Peace Be With You

John 20:19-31

What kinds of things have you unsettled these days? It’s unsettling to know that every morning on the news, there is going to be some negative political rant, some kind of murder, and some kind of other disaster. It’s unsettling to hop on social media or hop in a car and see humanity really reveal itself when there is some level of anonymity involved. It is unsettling to see the attacks made on Christians for their faith. It is unsettling to know that I am included in those numbers. In what kind of ways have I lashed out while driving, or when I could leave an anonymous comment? In what ways have I elevated myself as a better Christian that others, or taken the opposite route and shrunk back from Christianity to try to blend in?

There is so much wrong in our world today, so much that has been ruined by the actions of that first sinner, Adam. Now we have been numbered along with the sinners and have to deal with the tragic effects of sin. It’s all rather unsettling. It’s all rather disturbing. That is, until it all changed when Jesus spoke 4 simple words, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). This peace is peace that he has wrought. It’s peace for when you doubt. And you have peace to go out into the world.

Needless to say, the disciples have had a few extremely unsettling days. Jesus warned them that one among them would betray him. Then, when they were in a nearby garden praying, Jesus was seized and taken captive by Judas. Their leader and teacher – their rabbi – was then put on trial by an angry mob that refused to be reasonable. During these tumultuous events, the bold spokesman of the disciples actually denied even knowing Jesus! Then Jesus was taken to be crucified, and he died that very day. I think sometimes we forget that all of this happened in less than 24 hours between Thursday night and Friday evening.

And although we maybe don’t think of it in this way, now that we have the full story, but even the events on Easter Sunday morning were very unsettling. Mary Magdalene burst through the door of where the disciples were staying to report that Jesus’ body was missing! Peter and John went to investigate. Shortly after, the other women, who lingered at the tomb a little longer burst through the doors and told the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead! Later that day, two of the disciples who were on their way to Emmaus were discussing everything that happened that morning. Then Jesus appeared to these two, alive, and they ran back to tell the others. You could almost hear the clamor of these disciples and other believers who gathered together behind locked doors that night. “What happened to Jesus?” “I saw him alive!” “How could that be?” “Was it an angel, or really Jesus?” They discussed this behind locked doors because if the Jews found out they were talking about Jesus alive… well, you know what they did to Jesus himself. Needless to say, it was all very unsettling and confusing.

Then, to get them all on the same page, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19). Calm your troubled hearts. Ease your baffled minds. Peace be with you as you see that it is I, Jesus, and that I truly am alive! But that wasn’t even the greatest news Jesus had to share with them that day. The Good News isn’t simply that he is alive. The Good News is that he is alive after he truly died. “[Jesus] showed them his hands and side” (Jn 20:20). Look, I bear the marks of death. It wasn’t just a trick or a deception, I truly did die. I truly died to pay the punishment for all of your sins. Do you know what that means?! It means you are no longer numbered with sinners. You are no longer stained with sin! It means you have peace with God, and so I’ll say it again – and Jesus really did say it twice that night – “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:21). What those words must have meant to terrified disciples who were grieved for having abandoned Jesus in the garden – in his time of need. What those words much have meant to Peter, who wept bitterly after having denied even knowing Jesus!

What do those words mean to you? Thankfully your sins aren’t recorded in a book that has been read by millions for hundreds of years – but I know they linger with you. I know they cause you grief and pain from time to time. I know it’s unsettling to think of all the reasons you have given God not to love you, and yet, he says to you also, “Peace be with you!” You have peace with God because of what Jesus has wrought. He showed his hands and side – marks which prove your redemption price has been paid. Marks which testify that you have peace through what Jesus did for you! That’s why we declare those same words just before we take the Lord’s supper, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Not because we have earned it, but because Jesus earned it for you and freely gives it.

Unfortunately, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples that night when Jesus appeared to them. “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’” (Jn 20:25), but he did not believe them. We aren’t told what he was doing; why he wasn’t with the other disciples. But the fact that the Lord waited a full week to dispel his doubts can possibly be seen as a rebuke for not gathering with the other disciples. A small reminder for us as well to not give up meeting together. It’s unfortunate that Thomas didn’t believe the others. In fact, he’s even gained a nickname from this event: “Doubting Thomas.” How could he insist that his own two eyes were more reliable than their twenty?

But really, can we blame him? Or should I say, was he really any different from all the other disciples who doubted the reports that were coming in from the women and the Emmaus disciples? Did he act any differently that we have perhaps acted in the past? Or what about the times when we still are overcome by doubt? What about the times when we have doubted the words that Jesus spoke in this very account: “Peace be with you”? What about the needless grief and pain that we bear simply because we doubt those words of Jesus and allow the weight of our sins, past or present, hang around our necks like a millstone? Or what about the times when we doubt Jesus words that “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20), or his word that says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer 29:11). It’s easy to doubt those words when it seems that our lives are not prospering. It’s easy to doubt those words when we cry out, “Where was God when I needed him?”

But look at him in these words. Hear what he says to dispel Thomas’ doubts when he finally appears to him a week later. “Peace be with you!” – he says it a third time – “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:26-27). We might see these words as a stern rebuke for Thomas not to doubt anymore. But yet, we can also see what has been called a “condescending love.” Thomas boldly set up conditions that needed to be met before he would believe that Jesus was alive. He had no right to set such conditions. But yet, Jesus met them. He gave Thomas the exact proof he was looking for and tells him, “don’t be without faith. You have your proof, now believe!”

In our doubts, we often set up conditions as well; conditions which we have no right to set. Whether we realize it or not, when we ask, “Where was God when this happened?” or “Why would God allow this to happen?” we are setting up conditions that say, God must do it my way for me to believe and not doubt! But what is it really that Jesus promised? Did he promise that his plans for your life would always be easy? Did he promise that him being with you means that you will never get sick, injured, or threatened? Look at the marks Jesus himself bore! His hands and feet were nailed. His back was beaten. His side was pierced. The work that Jesus came to do, and the plans that Jesus has for you are not to prevent all earthly harm and danger, but rather to keep you free from the spiritual dangers that can really do you harm. And yes, sometimes he will use sickness to bring you back to him in prayer. Sometimes he will use the threats of others to get you back into his word, studying it to find your answers. Sometimes he will use tragedy to strip you down to your foundation, as he rebuilds you in his image. See that he bore all of the same pains, yet also realize that his deepest pain did not leave a mark. When he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46), he was enduring the hell that we deserve, unimaginable torment, so that you would never have to know that kind of pain.

So when things aren’t going your way, when life is unsettling and you have every reason to doubt that God is with you – humanly speaking – you can go back to these words, “Peace be with you.” In them, you have proof that he has dispelled all reasons for doubting that he is with you and is leading you to your eternal life. Sure, there were other things that Jesus did that we don’t have recorded, but these things were written so that you have all the proof you need. “These are written that you may believe the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

Finally, having every reason for doubt removed and firmly believing, Jesus also gives you peace to go out with this good news! “Peace be with you!” he says, “‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn 20:21-22). It’s that Holy Spirit that finally convinced the disciples that Jesus is indeed alive and that they do indeed have peace. It’s that Holy Spirit that gave the disciples peace to go out from that locked room and tell others about what they had seen. It’s that Holy Spirit that gave the disciples the boldness they needed to stand in front of crowds, rulers, and kings and boldly declare “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).

Something very important is going on in all of this. Jesus gave the disciples his Spirit – the Holy Spirit. He said to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Mt 16:18). It is God who supports and sustains you when you go out. It is God who gives you the words to say, and it is God who changes hearts and creates faith.

I think often, what we find unsettling about going out as Christians – standing up for our faith and sharing our faith – is that we get this notion that if we fail, then a little bit of God’s church will crumble. And that we have to convince people that Jesus is the Savior. But it is God who builds his church and he who defends it. Whether the church stands or falls does not depend on you, but on God – so don’t bear that weight on your shoulders. And it’s not your words, but these words that are written, that people may believe. You will never argue someone into heaven. You can, however, share God’s Word, however you know how, and let him change hearts.

So be at peace. “Peace be with you.” You have peace with God because Jesus has already accomplished your salvation. It is finished! You can have peace from your doubts when you remember why Jesus died. Not to better your life here on earth, but to give you a better life in heaven. And you can have peace when you go out knowing that God doesn’t depend upon you to defend the church, but he does give you the privilege of sharing the good news of peace!

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The Resurrection Difference (April 1, 2018)

April 5, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

The Resurrection Difference

1 Corinthians 15:12-23

What if it was all just an April fool’s trick that went too far. A clever deception by the loyal disciples to save face and continue in a dead man’s teaching? What if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? Have you ever thought through that? Have you ever wondered what your life would be like, what Christianity would be, if Jesus never rose from the dead? Let’s put ourselves in that position for a moment this morning. Let’s consider it an April fool’s trick for just a moment as we get a handle on the resurrection difference.

The apostle Paul, who wrote this first letter to the Corinthians, actually spells it out for us. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (1 Cor 15:14-18). If Jesus did not rise from the dead on Easter Sunday, well that vastly changes things. Christianity hinges upon the resurrection difference. So if there was no resurrection, then these four things end.

First, we have no hope of a bodily resurrection on the last day. In this reading, the author actually attacks it from a different angle. You see, in the Corinthian congregation they believed that Jesus rose from the dead, but they doubted a bodily resurrection of all people. So the author is arguing that if God cannot resurrect people, he could not have resurrected Jesus either. The two go together. In our day and age, it’s the resurrection of Jesus that people tend to attack, but the result is the same. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then you also have no hope of a resurrection. You will live your life here on earth, and one day you will die. That’s it. That’s all there is to your story if Jesus’ resurrection was just an April fool’s trick.

Second, and related to the first, those who have died before us are lost. Your loved ones, your grandparents or great grandparents, your father or mother, your siblings, any of those you have lost in this life to death are lost forever. There is no hope of a joyful reunion in heaven because if Jesus has not been raised then there is no resurrection.

Third, you are still in your sins. Jesus died and took on the wrath for sin. He did this as a substitute – he hung there in the place of every sinner. Yet, if he did not rise, then that meant he did it only as man and not also as God. And God clearly says in his word that “No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them – the ransom for a life is costly” (Ps 49:7-8). The only way that Jesus’ death could mean anything, could ransom the lives of every sinner, is if he were more than just a mere man. If he died and rose, then that would be proof that his ransom payment, his death, was more than enough – that it was accepted by God as full payment. But if he did not rise, then the evidence would seem to be against this, and there would be no hope of redemption for sinners.

That would mean, therefore – and this is the fourth point – that we are false witnesses, and our faith is useless, in vain. Because what are we even doing here then? The whole point of Christianity is to be redeemed from our mountain of sin which condemns us. It’s to have a silver lining to the gloom that accompanies the death of a loved one. It’s to have hope that there’s more than just this broken world; that there’s a resurrection to a new and perfect world. Yet if the resurrection of Jesus never happened, if it was all just a trick, then one by one all the things we hope in come unraveled and our entire faith amounts to nothing. We would be living our lives devoted to a lie only to meet a hopeless end.

The apostle Paul declares what would be the blunt truth in verse 19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). If believing in Christ has value only for this present earthly life, then Christians are fools who have made a tragic mistake and who should be pitied by others. Without the resurrection, Christianity is pointless. Renouncing oneself as the master of your own life, making sacrifices in life, enduring persecution for the sake of Jesus – these are all senseless things if Jesus did not rise. Unbelievers who indulge in the sinful pleasures of life, then, are wiser and far better off, because this would be all there is. The Christian life is not worth living if the hope and promise of the resurrection are removed. What a hopeless end to a hard fought life.

So the question we have to ask ourselves, to make any of this mean anything, is: “Did he rise?” Did Jesus rise from the dead? The common arguments that some would bring against his resurrection is that his disciples stole his body and spread the story that he was alive. This was the story that the chief priests paid the guards to tell after the guards reported to them everything that had happened (Mt 28:11-15). But this is also the very thing the chief priests worked so hard to prevent! Make no mistake about it, these chief priests were wise, they were powerful, and they had all the right connections to make sure this didn’t happen. Yet, ironically, this is the report that they spread making themselves look like fools. These powerful enemies of Jesus, who wanted nothing more than to make this Jesus go away – that would have loved to have smothered Christianity in its cradle” – only needed to come up with his body. They didn’t. All evidence that we have goes against this argument, and, in fact, even includes the origin of this false argument!

A couple other arguments are that Jesus had a twin brother who made a few appearances after Jesus died and then he himself disappeared completely. Or there was some sort of mass hypnosis that took hold of the more than 500 people Jesus appeared to, or this was all some huge and extraordinarily clever conspiracy. And yet one more, slightly more plausible explanation, is that this all was just a legend that developed many years later. But yet we have so many prophecies that are so detailed about what Jesus would do, and they come long before Jesus even stepped foot on this earth. The truth is, these theories have no evidence. In fact, they run contrary to all the evidence that we have.

Yet people today ask, aren’t any of these explanations, weak as they are, more plausible than the story written by John, or Matthew, Mark, and Luke? No, they were eyewitnesses and recorded their testimony! Any historian will tell you that there is no better category of historical verification than letters and similar documents written by contemporary witnesses of the events in question. The evidence becomes overwhelming, from the historian’s point of view, when it is recognized that those documents were widely disseminated and received as credible at a time when thousands were still living who could have discredited them. And the manuscript evidence we have for the New Testament is far more abundant with far less variants than any other historical documents we have from that same time period. Many of which historians have no problem accepting as accurate recordings of history.

We have the written eyewitness testimonies of those who were present, who gave the rest of their lives to the telling, and called it joy to spill their blood rather than let go the simple words, “Jesus lives!” Consider that when they claimed to have seen Jesus physically raised from the dead, they were making the most difficult and dangerous case they could have imagined, if it were not true. Since the disciples had demonstrated their belief in ghosts on other occasions (a naïve leftover from their former spiritual confusion) the easiest and most natural fabrication would have been to say that they had been met by the spirit of Jesus. … But this isn’t what they ran shouting. Their startling reports of a bodily resurrection, supported by the detailed descriptions of having touched Jesus and even of having seen him eat, meant making a claim that could have been easily demolished if it were not the simple truth. They only needed to come up with his body. But they didn’t. This deafening silence of opposition only gives further credence to the true historical account.

Finally, what about the testimony of Paul, who wrote 1st Corinthians. He was against Jesus. He hunted down Christians in an attempt to snuff out that fragile ember. He did this with a passion – and let me tell you, Paul was no dummy. He studied at the finest schools and was a skilled debater. He had the power he needed. If anyone could have exposed the Christian lie, it would have been Paul. And yet, seeing the resurrected Christ himself, he makes a complete 180 and becomes one of the strongest proponents for Christ!

With all this evidence, is it really the Christian who believes whatever he wants to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary? Far from it! The arguments against the resurrection of Jesus are the complete and utter fabrications. Those are the notions that have nothing whatsoever to do with even the tiniest shred of evidence. And yet they hold to these arguments why? Because it isn’t reasonable to think that someone can rise from the dead? When you think about it, all the truth of Easter really requires to be plausible is the condition that God exists. Because “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

So what does all this mean? With all this credible evidence in support of the resurrection of Jesus, what is the resurrection difference? It means everything he ever said is true. Everything he ever claimed to be he is. Then everything he ever promised will come. It means that we are no longer met with a hopeless end, but rather, anyone who believes this has an endless hope.

It means that death has indeed been defeated! Since Christ went into death with the very flesh that you and I have, yet came out the other side, you can be confident that you also will live even though you die. And that means all your loved ones who have gone before you are not really lost eternally. You will see them again! I’ll be able to talk about the joys of ministry with my Grandpa Ehlers. I’ll be able hug my Grandma and Grandpa Menke once again. In fact, the time that you’ve had with your loved ones so far will merely be an introduction compared to the endless years you will have with them in the life to come! And not only will you have them, more importantly, you will be with your Savior. You will finally be able to see him face to face and finally be able to enjoy the full measure of all his blessings. “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rm 8:18).

It also means that there is forgiveness for all your sins. The sacrifice that Jesus made was more than enough to cover the debt of sin. Now we don’t have to earn our salvation, which in reality none of us ever could. Now salvation is a free gift, given to you out of the love of God’s heart – his grace. And that means you never have to wonder or worry about your salvation. It’s not in your hands, it’s in God’s hands. He does all things well. He never gives up, never lies, never fails. Your salvation is certain with him.

Finally, it means that your faith is something. It means that the sacrifices you make, not giving into worldly pleasures, is received by your living Savior as an act of thanks and praise. It means that the suffering or persecution that you endure for your risen Savior are not in vain. It means that when Jesus takes hold of your life and becomes the master of your heart and mind, there are no better hands you could be in.

Put quite simply, the resurrection difference is that you have an endless hope. And it’s a certain hope because it all hinges upon Christ’s resurrection. “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). God gave you proof. He gave you something you could put your finger on, something you can cling to. He raised Jesus from the dead so that you can be certain of all these things and have an endless hope.

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Live Like No One Else (March 25, 2018)

March 26, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Live Like No One Else

Philippians 2:5-11

I always love Palm Sunday, don’t you? After 5 weeks of muted services during Lent, and meditating upon Jesus humility and upcoming passion, we finally get to let ‘er rip! “All glory, laud, and honor To you, Redeemer, King, To whom the lips of children Made sweet hosannas ring” (CW 131). We get to sing that as the children march around the sanctuary waving palm branches of victory! And this isn’t just something we do to celebrate the day in the 21st century. We are imitating the praises sung by those long ago who celebrated their king, the long awaited Messiah riding into Jerusalem. “Hosanna!” they cried! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shouted (Mk 11:9)! I think a big part of our excitement is that Jesus is finally getting what he deserves! After taking on flesh, after living a humble life, after being rejected in his own hometown, rejected by the religious leaders, finally he was getting the praise and recognition he deserved! Although we could never match the full glory he deserves, it’s a great start!

We like it when someone gets what they deserve right? Actually, it’s funny because this goes two ways. On the one hand, we are relieved when someone finally gets caught and punished for their wrongdoings. “He got what he deserved” we say, right? And yet, on the other hand, we like it when we finally get some recognition for all the good things that we’ve done! It could be for something as simple as doing the dishes or taking out the garbage every night, to something bigger like all the time and dedication we’ve put into our work.

But today I want to challenge you to put all that aside. Don’t worry about what each person deserves. Don’t worry about receiving recognition. I want you to simply live your life like Jesus lived his – loving God and loving each other. I want to challenge you to live like no one else. In fact, it’s not just me who wants you to do this, but the apostle Paul and God himself, for his word says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Php 2:5).

Let’s take a look first at what Jesus had going for him, and how he used that in his life. Jesus is, by his very nature, God (Php 2:6). Through him all things were made (Jn 1:3). He had authority over all things in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18). He had all glory (Mt 25:31), and honor, and power. Things were great for Jesus in heaven! But when he saw that the crown of his creation, humankind, had gotten themselves into a lot of trouble – had sinned against him and made themselves his enemy – he didn’t give them what they deserved. Instead, he became one of them – he became one of us. And yet, even becoming fully human didn’t mean that he became less God. It didn’t diminish in any way his power, or glory, or honor. It was all still there. We get a glimpse of it when he was transfigured and allowed his disciples to see the glory and power which was still right there. The humility comes from the fact that although all of that was still his and still fully accessible to him, he chose not to make full use of it for your sake.

As a modern-day example, I have a friend who lives in the U.S. but has family in Cuba. And he explained that whenever he goes to visit Cuba, he is very careful what he wears and how he presents himself. He doesn’t wear his best clothes. He doesn’t wear name brands. Instead, he leaves those at home and wears simple, plain clothes so that he blends in and doesn’t look like a “rich” American. All his clothes are still his. All his money is still his. He just choses to set them aside for a time.

Every time Jesus performed a miracle and used some of his divine power, he did so to serve others. He fed others, and yet didn’t turn stones to bread for his own sake. He healed others, and yet allowed himself to be beaten, and whipped. He even saved some from physical death, and yet did not save himself from death.

Even here, on Palm Sunday, while the whole crowd is upholding him and rejoicing he is still humble. This is nothing compared to what he truly deserved. He enters into Jerusalem on a young colt, not a mighty stallion of a victorious general. He is accompanied by common people – men, women, and children – not 12 legions of angels, or even a battalion of soldiers for that matter. In all respects, he looked like just any other common man. The only thing that really set him apart was the praises that the crowd was shouting. And yet, even with that he knew…. He knew that in only a matter of days, many in this very same crowd would be shouting, “Crucify him, Crucify him!” He knew, as we just sang, that he was riding on to die. You would think that in this moment he would give in, at least just a little bit. You’d think that he would want to give them a little show, or raise his hands and hear the crowd shout even louder. You’d think he would want some recognition, some sliver of what he really deserved before he laid down his life for these people. But, “Being in very nature God, [he] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, [something to be exploited,] but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Php 2:6-8).

You can almost feel Paul taking you down the steps of his humiliation. He took on human nature. He humbled himself in life. He even humbled himself by dying. And if that wasn’t far enough, he goes one step lower – “even death on a cross.” Do you know what God himself says about death on a cross? In Deuteronomy he says, “If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (Deut 21:22-23). He had everything going for him – all power, all glory, all honor – and yet he chose not to exploit that power to save you. He went so far to save you that he even died in your place in a manner that was cursed by God! He lived like no one else ever could. And he did it to save you.

In this light, first understanding the lengths God went to save you, unfathomable love and service, God then urges you to do the same. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Php 2:5).

Now, to really understand what God is asking, to understand the difficulty of Paul’s words in this letter to the Philippians, you have to understand a little about Philippian culture. Philippi was the site of the battle in which Brutus and Cassius, who had led the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, were defeated by Mark Antony and Octavian, who later became Caesar Augustus. Soon after that battle, Philippi was made a Roman colony, and Mark Antony settled some of his veterans there. Augustus continued this policy of settling retired veterans in Philippi, granting them plots of land for their service. In Paul’s day, Philippi was the leading city of one of the four political regions of the old Macedonian empire. In this city, honor had more value than money. It was a status driven culture, and although there could be some movement up between the classes, the strata were pretty much locked. So, by urging them to have an attitude like that of Christ Jesus, who humbled himself to serve others and did not exploit the honor that was rightfully his, Paul was preaching a very counter-cultural message. Especially if you look back a few verses where he says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Php 2:3).

How does that message sound to our ears today? Is it as counter-cultural in our day as it was in Paul’s day? My gut reaction was, “Of course not! Especially in our circles, we are pretty humble people.” But then I began to think otherwise as I evaluated some of my relationships. How often have I done the dishes just so that I could be off the hook the next time around? Actually, the better question would be, how often have I not done the dishes because I think I’m so busy all day and deserve some time to rest. In how many of my relationships do I keep this mental scorecard making sure things stay fairly even? Why should I do this for her if she never does anything for me? Why should I forgive him if I’ve spent years being devoted to him?

What if our Savior thought that way? How much time has he spent devoting himself to his relationship with you? Far longer than you have even been alive, I’ll tell you that much! How much has he done for you, what lengths was he willing to go to just to have you safe with him? “Even death on a cross!” And yet we still fall into this mindset with God of what we deserve from him and from others. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Php 2:5-6).

Jesus is a huge example to live up to. Who could ever do it? He lived like no one else could, that’s exactly the point! How can we? Thankfully, you don’t have to. Not to earn salvation at least. Because Christ did all of this to save you from every time you fell into the worldly trap. Christ died for every time you sought to serve only yourself. And that sinful, self-satisfying part of you died with him, and dies with him every day again and again because you have been baptized into his death. Now your fate is vastly different. “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Php 2:9), so that no one could dispute your salvation. Not Satan, not your own guilty feelings, not anyone! Therefore, we gladly exalt him as our Savior and serve him out of thanksgiving for all that he has done! “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:10-11).

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Show Us Jesus (March 18, 2018)

March 21, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Show Us Jesus

John 12:20-33

We all like to show off every now and then, right? Maybe it’s by being the hostess with the mostest at a dinner party. Or maybe it’s having an almost perfect bracket for March Madness. No matter what it is, we always like to hold out our best. It was once noted that when you get together for a high school reunion, a work conference, or any other gathering of people you occasionally meet, we all like to hold out our best. There could be a number of things that aren’t going so well in our lives, but when asked, “How are you doing?” we always like to hold out our trophies! The brightest and best things we can find to highlight.

Imagine the disciples’ disappointment when a group of Greek believers approached them and asked, “We would like to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). Show us Jesus. And when the disciples relayed the request to Jesus, they instead got this rather depressing answer. A seed dying… hating your life… a troubled soul…judgment on this world? Jesus, where’s the miraculous signs? Where’s the profound teaching? Why so dark and ominous all of a sudden? Where’s the glory?

Well, we know why he is being so dark and ominous don’t we. This is the last Lent service before Holy Week and Palm Sunday. We now talk one last time about the approaching hour of Jesus’ death before the services we have in honor of it. Not only that, but this reading, in fact, occurs on the Tuesday of Holy Week, days before he would be crucified. And by laying out a timeline of all the events of Holy Week, we can even see that this is that last day that Jesus taught publicly before he died. These words that we read today are the last words that the vast majority would have heard from Jesus before he died on the cross.

So why these words? Why focus on the dismal and his death? Why not highlight the best parts of his ministry to rally even more to the glories of faith in Jesus when the people asked to see Jesus? Well, it all comes down to the real glory of Jesus’ work. Where is his glory?

First, his glory is in all that he has done in service to the Father. It was the Father’s will that he humble himself and be born in flesh. It was the Father’s will that he live a perfect, sinless life. It was that Father’s will that he conduct a ministry, teaching people how to live God’s law not just by their actions, but stemming from a heart of love. It was the Father’s will that he take some of his closest disciples through intensive training so that they could be sent out as eyewitnesses and pillars of the Church. And it was the Father’s will that he take our place in death.

So first, he is glorified in all that he does in service to the Father. Second, he is glorified in dying. Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed” (Jn 12:23-24). The glory of Jesus’ death is that by the sacrifice of one, many more are saved. By giving up his glory for a time, he gains many more, glorifying them and him in the process!

That is actually my last point. In his dying, by the dying of that one seed, many more seeds are produced, glorifying God. And for all believers who serve and follow Jesus, like Jesus they also will be glorified. That’s what he says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (Jn 12:26).

So you see, we go about seeking glory in all the wrong ways. We human beings, prone to sin, tend to elevate our service for God and the things we do as our glory. But Jesus shows us just the opposite. Jesus did not seek to glorify himself by the things he was doing. He didn’t seek to glorify himself by giving charismatic speeches and dying a noble death. Rather, Jesus lived a life of service. He spoke the truth even when it would sound revolting to some. And he died the death of a sinner. He did it all without thinking of his own reputation or glory. He did it all so that you would be glorified.

It’s that same attitude that we have, then, as we live our lives in service to God. Not seeking glory or fame for ourselves, but speaking the gospel truths in love. Seeking to glorify God our Savior. And we do that, surprisingly, by highlighting his death. That’s why the symbol of Christianity is a cross. “Show us Jesus?” you ask. I’ll show you Jesus. He was the seed that died, to produce many more seeds. He was the Passover Lamb, who obeyed God’s will perfectly then gave up his life so that you could live. He is Lord of all yet became servant of all so that you could become his heirs. You ask to see Jesus and I’ll show you someone who cared so much about you, that he devoted his whole life to you – even going so far as to die for you. In our day and age we call those people heroes. People who are willing to give up their lives in service to others.

It sure does teach us something about wanting to always have our best on display while hiding our faults. Jesus didn’t consider our faults when he came to save. Despite all our blemishes and defects being known to him, he still considered you worth dying for. And in his death, he didn’t just hide or cover up your defects, he took them onto himself and did away with them completely! In fact, That’s the very reason he came – his mission!

We’ve seen that Jesus’ glory did not come from the things we typically consider glorious and honorable. Rather, it came from his service to others and his life-giving death. His mission, also, was accomplished in a way that no one would have expected.

We might expect a victory over a powerful adversary to come about by an impressive battle of might and strength. We might expect something more like what we read about in Revelation 12, “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Rev 12:7-9). Now that’s an epic battle! That’s a battle worthy of our Savior Jesus! That all did happen. It’s a depiction of the first battle when Satan was thrown out of God’s presence for his rebellion. But then Satan led mankind astray and doomed all humanity to his same fate. And he continues to entice and drag down anyone he can get his hands on. So a second battle had to be fought; not one to cast Satan out of God’s presence, but one to rescue the world from his enslavement. You would think that this battle would go down much like the first, but in fact it all went down very differently. God told us exactly how it would happen when he declared to Satan, “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15). Satan thought he had won when he struck Jesus’ heel and had him crucified. But in that same moment, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head. The prince of this world was driven out and made powerless when the King of kings and Lord of lords was condemned and died in our place.

This changed the verdict for you. This removed any blame or charge that Satan could bring against you. Every charge against humanity was laid on Jesus at the cross. The eternal destiny of mankind was determined on the cross, and at that moment the devil lost all his power. What is the verdict then? Was Jesus successful in his mission? With the powerless devil looking on, God declares all people righteous because of what the Savior has done.

It wasn’t an easy mission to accomplish. Jesus was not a robot, heading for the scrap heap without feeling. To live in our place so that we could be declared righteous, Jesus himself had to become fully human. And along with that came all the things that we consider human: fear, pain, temptation, the possibility of failure. Despite also being fully God, he did not simply switch off all sorrow and suffering. He already felt the burden we associate with Gethsemane. His sufferings would be intense beyond measure. He opened his soul for us to look in. “Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus said, “and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me for this hour’?” Suffering and death is not a very tantalizing prospect for any human being. And we shy away from it time and time again. Despite all that God has done for us, we often fail to stand up for God and demonstrate our love for him despite any consequence. But Jesus’ love far surpasses our own and drove him to the cross. Jesus’ determination is unmatched as he went all the way to his death so that you could live. “It was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (Jn 12:27-28).

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32). The prophecies are too detailed, his life too perfect, his death too innocent and with too much love for anyone to deny the truth. Anyone believing the prophecies, trusting the facts, and understanding the reason can’t confess anything other than “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior” to the glory of God the Father. So in his death, Jesus draws all people to himself in faith. And by his death, God draws all people to himself as saints made righteous by the blood of the Lamb.

If you want to see Jesus, the true glory of Jesus, look to the cross. If you want to know his mission, why he came, look to the cross. Although it was used for a cruel death, and although it was meant to be his defeat, Jesus turned that apparent defeat into victory, and death into eternal life. Therefore, we take pride in the cross. We “lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim. Till all the world adore his sacred name.”

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There is Good News for You (March 11, 2018)

March 14, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

There is Good News for You

John 3:14-21

Why do we ponder the passion? Why do we set aside time each year to meditate upon Christ’s suffering and death? Is it so that we can vent our anger on the ones who put Jesus to death – the ones who hated him then and the ones who hate him now? This only puts us in the habit of complaining about other people and really only has negative effects. Is it so that we can feel pity for Christ, lamenting and bewailing his innocence? In that case we put much into meditating on the pains that Christ went through, and maybe the anguish of his faithful followers, but if we never progress beyond that, what good is it? So why do we take the time to ponder the passion?

There was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, who wanted to know more. He wanted to know more about Jesus, and wanted to know more about why he came. Little did he know that he was also going to learn more about himself in the process. He came to Jesus in the secrecy of night, because he was a member of the Jewish ruling council and was afraid of what they would think of him coming to Jesus. It seems that Nicodemus didn’t quite know what to ask Jesus. He only came wanting to know more. But Jesus knew the burning question in his heart, and he knew just how to address it. The overriding question of the moment was whether or not Nicodemus was in the kingdom of God. If not, then he needs to know how to get there.

The problem was, Nicodemus was looking in all the wrong places and at all the wrong things. We heard last week that the leading Jews put much attention on the physical temple in Jerusalem rather than seeing the spiritual worship which was to take place there. They carefully devoted themselves to going through the motions of the Mosaic customs while ignoring the spiritual life they were meant to influence. All along, Jesus was leading Nicodemus to see not just the physical, but the spiritual aspect behind it. “The wind blows wherever it pleases.” He said, “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).

Then Jesus alludes to an event that Nicodemus would have known well. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (Jn 3:14). Long ago, when the Israelites were rebelling against God as he led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land, he sent snakes among them which would bite them. Many Israelites died. It sounds harsh, but it was a physical representation of what was happening spiritually. Spiritually, many Israelites were succumbing to the venom of sin and dying inside. So God used physical venom as an antivenom to sin. It was the only thing that the Israelites would respond to. And it drew them back to God’s promise. Nicodemus knew that it wasn’t the physical act of looking at the bronze snake that saved the Israelites in the wilderness. It was their trust in God’s promise in connection with the bronze snake that saved them.

The reality is that we too often get so tied up in the physical that we forget about the spiritual. How many of you complained or were appalled at the news this week? How many of you are disgusted at the heart of the people who commit those crimes, steal that property, harm others’ lives? But in all of this disgust and rage, have we forgotten about why all this happens? Why ask, what could possibly be going through a person’s head to lead them to this? We know it’s not just a problem with their head. It’s actually a problem with their heart. They have been infected with the venom of sin and it’s killing them inside.

Next time as you watch the news on your TV, think of that screen not as a window into another world, but as a mirror of your heart. I’m serious. Because although you may not have acted on it, those same sins are in your heart as well. The bickering and backstabbing you see in politics can also be seen in your heart regarding people you may call your friends. The stealing and robberies you see are but reflections of your own greed and selfishness. Even the heartless murders are reflected in your own hate against those who may not have been so kind to you in the past. God alerts you to this spiritual problem time and time again in his word, but sometimes it just doesn’t sink in. Sometimes it doesn’t hit home. And so here we are, just like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake, here we are looking at a physical reminder of our sinfulness. Luther said in one of his sermons, “When you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work. When you behold his crown of thorns, you may rest assured that these are your evil thoughts. For every nail that pierces Christ, more than one hundred thousand should in justice pierce you.” So meditating on the passion is not at all to burn in anger against those who crucified Christ, unless the finger is only pointing at ourselves. Meditating on the passion is not to feel sorry for Christ’s suffering, but to remorse over the suffering of our sinful condition.

All this lays the ground work for the very important message that Jesus has to share with Nicodemus and with you. In the suffering of the passion, there is good news for you. For “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-16). As you are reminded of your spiritual condition – that you are spiritually dead in your sinfulness – then look to God’s uplifted Son, because there is Good News for you. His physical death was the antivenom for your spiritual death of sin. Look to him believing the promise that God has spoken in connection with Jesus’ death. You know the promise well. As you look to God’s uplifted Son and meditate on the passion, hear his promise and believe his promise: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). There is new life in connection with Jesus. Life, real life with God, unending life, begins the moment one places full confidence in the Son of Man. There is Good News for you.

It’s not a natural thing for us, though. It’s not natural for us to have the sinful condition of our hearts exposed. Like Adam, we hide our sinfulness from God. Like Nicodemus, we live our lives pretending to be one thing when we know that there is something wrong – some need to be met. And it’s really all for the same reasons that a criminal might run from the law or fear the court. We know that we deserve judgment. God has every reason and every right to summon the world into court and have his Son judge each and every one of us. We know the verdict already. The verdict would have been condemnation and eternal banishment from the presence of God for everyone. But God’s love intervened. There will be a time for judgment, make no mistake about it. But now is not that time.

Jesus says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned” (Jn 3:17-18). His mission, when he took on flesh, was exclusively one of rescuing and deliverance. This whole conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has been geared toward bringing Nicodemus to see God’s unlimited love and salvation in Christ. The whole reason God did not wipe out humanity – when Adam first fell into sin, when the Israelites rebelled, when Jesus was crucified, or after each and every one of your sins – was because now is not God’s time for judgment. Now is his time for salvation. The believer who comes to God trusting this, despite the condition of his heart, no longer stands in the court of judgment with the verdict of condemnation. Your faith in the Savior has removed all cause for an adverse verdict. You are not and never will be condemned. There is good news for you who look to God’s uplifted Son. There is good news for sinful human beings who lean on God’s unlimited love. You will never find a limit to what he can forgive.

This fundamentally changes a believer. Having established the necessity of believing and having declared how faith in Christ averts every kind of judgment, Jesus now draws a clear distinction between the believer and the unbeliever. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (Jn 3:19-21). Those words must have hit Nicodemus pretty hard as he was sneaking around at night to find Jesus. Yet they were not just words of condemnation. Primarily they were words of encouragement. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to realize his own condition and great need to follow the truth. Jesus wanted Nicodemus not to be afraid of coming into the light.

The clear difference between the believer and the unbeliever is readily recognizable in their attitude toward the Light, Jesus. Unbelievers reject the light and prefer the darkness they were born in. They love the darkness with the kind of love God has for the world. They deliberately and intelligently, although foolishly, choose to remain under the control of the prince of darkness. And when the saving light comes to them and tries to free them from their enslavement, they fight back and insist on remaining in their evil deeds. Unbelief is more than just blindness to the light. It is stubborn refusal to accept the light that can remove the blindness.

Believers are completely the opposite. They are willing to live with the reality of their own unworthiness, relying on the love of God which covers their shame. They readily seek out the light because they know he hasn’t come to judge, but to love. They seek him so that they can live in that truth of forgiveness for their sins. They are not afraid of exposure, because God is at work in their lives and is using them to his glory. Live in God’s unveiled light of Jesus, because there is Good News of forgiveness for you.

We need a regular reminder of this. We need to mediate on the passion to shed light on our spiritual condition. We need to see the lengths God was willing to go to assure us that he came to love, not to judge. We need to meditate upon God’s uplifted Son to realize the Good News it proclaims. God loved the world, including you, so much that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

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