Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Heaven Opened for You (January 13, 2019)

January 14, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Heaven Opened for You

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Have you ever just gotten done reading about an individual in the Bible and just thought to yourself, “Wow. Now there’s a faithful Christian!” And yet, in the back of your mind, what you are really thinking, what you are despairing about is, “Whoa. That’s how God wants me to live?! I could never measure up.” Take Elijah, for instance. He stood up against some of the worst kings in Israelite history because God told him to. He trusted that God would keep him fed through a drought by placing himself in the care of a widow and her son who were getting ready to eat what they thought would be their last meal. He went toe to toe against the 450 prophets of the false god Baal so that God could display his wonders. In fact, he was so faithful, we might think, that he was one of the very few people in the Bible who didn’t die. God sent a fiery chariot and took him to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). He was even one of the two who appeared with Jesus on the mountain when he was transfigured. How could we even measure up?

Or take Peter, the bold spokesman of the disciples, faithful follower of Jesus. Peter wholeheartedly trusted Jesus and walked out to Jesus on top of the water! When Jesus asked whom the disciples said he was, Peter was right there with the perfect answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Or, when Jesus prophesied that all the disciples would fall away the night he was betrayed, it was Peter who bravely declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:33). After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter was so excited to see Jesus that he jumped out of a fishing boat and swam toward Jesus rather than waiting for it to come ashore. And it was Peter who boldly stood before thousands on the day of Pentecost to preach a very stern sermon to all those who had crucified Jesus – whether directly or indirectly. Wow. How could we ever grow to that level?!

One other such individual, was John the Baptist. We actually aren’t given many glimpses into John’s life of faithfulness and bold service. Much of the chapters dedicated to him talk about his preaching in the wilderness. Yet, I’d argue that although we don’t have many snapshots of his life, he made more of an impact than many of the other prophets and apostles in the Bible. He too was a bold and moving preacher. He too was profound in his wisdom as he preached, and unabashedly called out sin, urging people to repent. And the main reason why I think he was perhaps greater than many of the other prophets and apostles was because of what it says right here in these verses. “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ” (Lk 3:15). Now that’s saying a lot. These people didn’t identify just anyone as the Christ. In fact, you can see how reluctant many of them were to even call Jesus the Christ. So there was something about John that just amazed, wowed, and inspired the people.

But there was something missing. Not in the people’s eyes – they thought John was the real deal! There was something missing though. John, obviously knew that he was not the Christ. And he humbly pointed to his own unworthiness, his own lowliness in the face of the Christ, because he knew that he could never measure up. “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16). John knew his own inadequacies, and his own sinfulness, even though we might point to him as a hero of faith. In fact, if you go back to my two previous examples, reading their whole story, you will also see that people we hold up on pedestals are no different than you and me. Elijah, that great prophet whom God worked powerfully through, was terrified by the powers against him. When he was threatened with death he ran for his life into the wilderness, but then strangely prayed for that very thing, “I have had enough, Lord” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kg 19:4). And Peter too, despite clearly confessing that Jesus was the Christ, there were moments when he was rather confused on just what that meant. Despite boldly claiming that he would never disown Jesus, it was Peter who denied even knowing him. And there were many other times when he hastily jumped to action before really considering what the godly thing to do would be.

The fact is, sin infect us all. You may look through the pages of Scripture or even look around at the people in this room. There may be some that you respect and uphold for their faithfulness – which is a good thing – but then you may despair thinking, how could I ever be like them? How could I ever live up? Every one of us strives to live a god pleasing life, yet every one of us also fails time and time again. That’s because sin infects every one of us. From the moment we are born – even from conception – we are stillbirths, spiritually speaking. Maybe that strikes a chord with some of you personally. I’m sorry for bringing that up, but this is the reality. This should strike a chord with every one of us. We are all born spiritually dead. Every one of our children is born spiritually dead. That’s tragic. That’s scary. That’s something that can’t be taken lightly. Especially because throughout the Bible God declares a specific judgment with finality against those who are not reborn with the Spirit – those who are not brought from death to life. Here, John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:17). The chaff is the dead, unusable part of the grain. It’s worthless to the harvester. It’s tossed into the unquenchable fire. If left the way we were born, every one of us is destined for this fire.

But amongst the crowds gathered to hear John out in the wilderness, there walks a man who is different. Not just in the way he would speak, not just in the level of his teaching, or the dedication of his service to God. This one was foundationally different from birth, and yet strikingly familiar. Jesus wasn’t born a spiritual stillborn – the only one since the fall into sin. His whole life was lived in perfection. Perfect service to God. Perfect obedience to the Word. He never knew sin. And on the day he was baptized by John, heaven itself even opened for God the Father to declare his approval of Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). And the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came down and remained on Jesus. That didn’t happen for anyone else in the Bible. That didn’t happen for anyone else in history. That couldn’t happen to anyone else but Jesus.

Yet Jesus didn’t lord it over the people. He didn’t elevate himself above others or seclude himself to be visited by only the most noble. He never expected you to be like him. Rather, he came to be like you in all aspects except sin. He was born in flesh, just like yours and mine. He breathed the same air you breath and walked the very same earth you walk. He went out into the wilderness to hear the great prophet of his day – went to where John was preaching. He stood among the crowd of common, everyday people – tax collectors, soldiers, all kinds of other people. All kinds of sinners. He stood among them, and became one with them not only in his birth, but also in his obedience to God’s Word. He became one of them in his birth. He became one with them in his baptism. And God declared about Jesus what he could not say about any other human being on their own, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).

All the heroes of the Bible we look up to and strive after, are not worthy of such a declaration. In fact, John the Baptist, whom Jesus himself called “greatest among those born of women” (Mt 11:11), insists upon his own unworthiness, “I’m not even worthy to untie the straps of his sandals. I’m not worthy to perform the task of the lowliest of his servants.” And deep down, each one of you must know that you are not worthy of such a declaration. Not on your own at least.

Let’s take the focus off of that important phrase of God’s approval for Jesus for a moment and back up a bit. Jesus was baptized. Why was Jesus baptized? What is baptism? The Bible says that John “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). The second reading for today defines baptism as something God uses to save us. “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). But what sins did Jesus need to be forgiven of? What did he need to be saved from? Didn’t we just talk about how Jesus was not like us in our sinfulness? The prophet Isaiah says that the Christ would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Is 53:12). In fact, Jesus quotes this prophecy about himself shortly before he was crucified. And we often associate this prophecy with Jesus’ death. In his death, God laid on him the sins of us all. But really, all of Jesus’ life was lived as a substitutionary life for ours. His whole life was an offering in place of ours. So, in his baptism too, Jesus unites his baptism with the baptism of all sinners in order to take their place. In his baptism he was numbered with the transgressors so that he could be your Substitute for your redemption.

So as you, born spiritually stillborn in sin, were brought to the waters of baptism, you were reborn through the Holy Spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit give birth to spirit” (Jn 3:6). You are renewed. And in your baptism, you were united with Christ in his baptism, and you come out of those waters with the best part of the deal. Your sins are laid on him to go to his cross, and his holiness, his righteousness, is laid on you to open heaven for you. Do you know what that means? It means that God’s approval of Jesus for doing all things well goes with his righteousness. It means that what God declared to Jesus at his baptism, he now declares to you also through your baptism, “You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

You don’t have to go through life trying to live up to the great people of the Bible. Actually, if you want to look at someone from the Bible, look at Jesus. He’s really the only one who lived a perfect life – who never did anything wrong or had any moments of weakness. But as you look at Jesus’ life, don’t look at in the sense of, “Whoa, how could I ever live up to God’s expectations.” Rather, look at it with this conviction, “Wow, because I have been united with Christ in baptism, this perfect life with God’s stamp of approval is really my life in God’s eyes. Because of that, I am a new person! And heaven is open to me!”

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Where Shall We Find Him? (January 6, 2019)

January 9, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Where Shall We Find Him?

Matthew 2:1-12

I think many of you know that I’m a car enthusiast. And for those of you who don’t, “Hi, I’m Benj, and I’m a car enthusiast.” Yes, I’m the who buys the car not just for gas mileage and creature comforts, but for looks, road manners, speed and power. I’m the guy who actually reads through the owner’s manual of any car I buy, and not just to figure out how to set the presets on the radio. I love watching shows about cars and reading reviews about cars I am interested it. In fact, I recently watched a video simply describing the innovative functions of the new Audi A7’s headlights. They’ve got everything from dynamic blinkers, to an LED matrix that uses cameras to dim only the portion of the beam where there is an oncoming car. It’s all really interesting to me, and I love learning about that stuff!

I know it’s something different for all of us. Just as I know car details that might bore some, I know some of you know football statistics that I don’t find all that interesting. Others of you know the names of all the different ways you can sew a seam, and still others could whip up a recipe with ingredients like bay leaves or balsamic vinegar. We all have our interests – those things we like digging into all the minute details and fun facts of.

You also all know that I’m a pastor. That’s why I’m up here. As a pastor, I get to spend a good portion of my time digging into the minute details and brilliant applications of God’s Word. I’ve plumbed the depths of certain books of the Bible and traced the lives of individuals throughout the Bible. And I’ll tell you, that even with all the studying and digging I’ve done, there’s still so much more I could uncover. There are still many marvelous truths that God is waiting to reveal to me. Of course, this study of God’s Word is not reserved only for pastors. God’s Word is meant for all Christians. God reveals his wonders to all people. So, whether you are 4 years old, looking at the pictures as mommy and daddy read to you from your children’s Bible, or if you are 80 years old gleaning as you read from the notes you’ve scribbled in the margins over the years, there is always something more to learn – always some deeper truth waiting to be revealed.

And sometimes God uses miracles to invite us to plumb the depths of his Word. One such miracle was a special star that God sent for a very specific audience – the Magi. The Magi were likely royal advisors from Babylon. They were perhaps astronomers who studied the stars and plotted the courses of the planets. But what is truly amazing is that they knew at least the very basics of the promise of the Messiah. This was perhaps a remnant of the gospel passed down over hundreds of years from the time of Daniel. However they knew, they immediately made the connection between this special star and the one to be born “the king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). However God made the star, it served its purpose of leading the Magi to the Child born in Bethlehem. And in so doing, God also demonstrated his power over the laws nature that he established long ago.

However, God doesn’t always use miracles to lead us to him. In fact, nature, even when it is simply going along with the laws that God established declares the glory and wisdom of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth” (Ps 19:1-4). So, all the wonders and order of creation point to a God who is mighty in power and loving in action. Yet here, on this night, God broke the refrain of nature’s declaration to ring out a special chorus that a new King is born! He is Christ, the Lord.

The problem with nature’s declarations is that, although heavens and earth ring out loud and clear that there is a God, it’s hard to tell the details from nature. You could dig into the earth. You could study the order of nature. You could plot the courses of the heavens and marvel at the One who made them all, but none of these will tell you the details. None of them tell you just who the Savior is. That’s one of the reasons the Magi traveled so far to see this newborn king. They knew of him, but they wanted to learn about him. For this reason, God, in his wisdom, also had them make a pitstop in Jerusalem to learn a little more before they saw the Child himself. It seems that God made the special star disappear right as they were getting so close. He did this so that they would be forced to investigate. And by God’s plan, their investigation led them straight to the “owner’s manual” – to the pages of Scripture.

It’s surprising to see that although the Jews must have known about the Messiah – even Herod probably did, despite not being Jewish – it’s surprising that they all missed it. They weren’t watching and waiting for the Messiah to come and they missed him. Although they might want to blame it on not having all the information, they knew that wasn’t true. The same goes for you and me, who may be happily ignorant about some of the details of our Savior and our salvation. In Bible class we learned that all these symbols on the Chrismon trees have to do with Christ and tell us something about Christ. But what does a fish have to do with Jesus? Hear the Scriptures proclaim that just as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish for three days, so the Son of Man will be three days in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40). That detail certainly would have relieved a lot of anxiety from the hearts of despairing disciples after Jesus died and was buried. Or – it’s up on the trees, but I’ll show you right here – what does this “A” and “horseshoe” mean? The Bible tells us that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. But what does that mean for me? Dig into the Scriptures and you will see that even though Jesus was born, he has always been since the beginning. And even though Jesus died, he would be raised to life never to die again. More personally, the Bible also says that Jesus “who began a good work in you” – that is the work of faith – “will carry it on to completion” – that is on the Last Day when you will enjoy your salvation not only in part, but in the fullness of all God’s glory! What else is there that you have had questions on, or been a little unsure of all the details? All of Scripture is in your hands to delve into. In Scripture God reveals himself and his plan of saving you in such great detail!

And now we have the Magi, and king Herod, knowing exactly where to go for more details. “He called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, and asked them were the Messiah was to be born” (Mt 2:4).He knew that the ones who knew the details of the Old Testament Scriptures, who read it, copied it, and taught from it regularly would certainly know the details. As Scripture itself says, those who know the Holy Scriptures even from infancy are “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). It’s easy to see who the wise ones really were. Although the chief priests and teachers of the law had the details, “You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Mt 2:6), they did not have the sense to act on those details. It was the Magi who were truly wise and continued their trek of hundreds of miles just the last 7 from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Herod could have gone – if he truly wanted to worship him. The chief priests and teachers of the law could have easily made the trip, if they truly cared. But they didn’t. They just read a prophecy about the Messiah to tell the magi where to go. Isn’t this the Messiah they’ve been waiting for and hoping for? Why didn’t they go?!

How often have we been like the chief priests and teachers of the law? Having full access to all the details, cherishing them as very important to us, yet don’t allow this head knowledge and faith of the heart to spur us into action? How often do we allow excuses and laziness to prevent us from making the trek to sit at Jesus feet here with fellow believers or from opening the Scriptures even in our own homes? The Magi traveled hundreds of miles thirsting for their Savior. Yet we who have easy access to springs of living water, may rarely make it to the bookshelf in our own homes to fill up on the wisdom of salvation.

It all came together for these believers from a distant land. God once again demonstrated his authority over nature and caused the special star to reappear and go on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was (Mt 2:9). They also had the details of Scripture leading them to “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” (Mt 2:6). When they finally arrived at the house and saw the Child with his mother Mary what they knew in their heads and believed in their hearts spurred their hands and feet to action. “they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:11). Standing was out of the question. The Holy Spirit convinced these men of just whom this child was. In their country they would drop to their knees and touch their foreheads to the ground to show how humble they felt and how much greater than them was the One they were honoring. So, on their knees and bowed down low they showed reverence to the newborn King, their Savior.

The Lord knows our weakness. He knows that we are often weak in the flesh what our believing hearts so long to do. On our own we cannot find the Savior or the answers for life’s questions no matter how wise we may be. For us too, the Lord may sometimes increase our eagerness to find our Savior and worship him by “removing the star,” so to speak. So, as the magi were forced to seek help, God saw to it that they were driven to his Word. Help came from his Word.

Sometimes the lack of action on our part is because we do not fully understand our need until God reveals it to us. So, in our lives, he may “remove the star,” forcing us to seek help. And believers, moved by the Holy Spirit, know exactly where to find help. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 124:8). Help comes from God. Help comes from his Word. Into the Scriptures believers go, seeking Him with all the passion and dedication that led the Magi over miles of unforgiving terrain. Into the Scriptures believers go to find the help they need in all the stunning detail that God provides! Into the Scriptures believers go to see that God lovingly fills the need that he perhaps created to drive us to him. Into the Scriptures wise believers go to bow down and worship the King.

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My Brother is Bigger (December 30, 2018)

January 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

My Brother is Bigger

Hebrews 2:10-18

He played football for the Pittsburgh Steelers through the 70s. Four time Superbowl Champion, and right here from our own backyard. “Mean” Joe Greene is truly a hometown hero of Temple, TX. They even dedicated a field to him right here in Temple, just over a year ago. And even though I may not be a Steelers fan, or even really get that into football, we all love a good hometown hero! In fact, in my search for more hometown heroes of Temple, TX, I found that a couple years ago a radio station would pick a new “hometown hero” to honor each week. There’s just something exciting and uplifting in being able to say, “He’s from here you know! He’s one of us!”

Can you think of any other “hometown heroes?” Or, are there heroes in your family that you are proud of? Maybe you have a relative who received a special medal or recognition for his or her service to their country. Maybe a family member has a patent on something that is used every day. For me, my family hero is a nurse who helps bring new life into this world. One life, in particular, I’m particularly proud of my aunt for delivering; or rather, thankful for saving. Although I may not have actually been in any serious danger, I’m very thankful my aunt was staying with my family the morning of my birth. You see, I came pretty quickly. I was actually born in the kitchen. And my aunt was able to offer medical help until the EMTs got to the house. For that, my Aunt and I share a special connection. She even took my wife and I through pregnancy and delivery classes and assured us that she was only a phone call away if we needed anything.

With all that in mind, or with your own hero in mind, most of us probably wouldn’t be able to associate too closely with someone who is called the “pioneer of salvation” or “the anointed one” or even “the Son of God.” But, believe it or not, Jesus wants you to think of him as your “hometown hero.” Or, even better, your “big brother.” You see, he came for you. He didn’t remain in heaven seated at the throne of God with all glory and praise. He didn’t come to help the angels, but for you, “Abraham’s descendants,” true children of God through faith. And he went to great lengths to have this close of a relationship with you. He gave up his honor and glory. He gave up full use of his divine power. He was born of a woman so that he had to grow, as the gospel reading puts it, “grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). Can you even fathom that? How the God who upholds all of creation and preserves every life had to be given human life and be held in Mary’s arms. How the God who searches me, knows me, and perceives my thoughts from afar (Ps 139) had to learn how to walk and how to talk. How the God who bound Satan and commands the forces of the world saying, “This far you may come and no farther” (Job 38:11) could be tempted in every way just as you and I are.

In this way, it’s as if you grew up together – you and your brother Jesus. He experienced all the same things you experienced and is able to help you through every trial or challenge in life. That’s why the Bible says, “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18). Your big brother, Jesus, has been there, done that. He’s experienced it. He knows what you are going through, and he’s here to help you.

That’s why Jesus was born in the flesh. That’s why we needed Christmas. That’s why we needed one who could call us brothers and sisters. It was God’s way of coming to us in our need and in our distress. “So Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters” (Heb 2:11). We could never make it to him, or reach out to him, so he came to us.

Yet, he couldn’t simply just be one of us. Just another human being would become entrapped by sin, just as we are. Just another human being would never be able to rescue us, much less himself. So he also needed to be much more. He needed to be holy in every way, so that “both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family” (Heb 2:11). He also needed a special skill set. He needed to be a hero. He needed to be God.

That’s why Jesus had to be born of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we needed Christmas. That’s why we needed “the pioneer of salvation” (Heb 2:10) to come to where we are to rescue us.

It actually reminds me of another rescue mission that happened not too long ago. Even the most skilled described this rescue mission as among the most dangerous they have attempted. The mission was to rescue 12 boys and their coach from a treacherous and submerged cave in Thailand. The group was exploring the caves when a flash flood trapped them. They were about 4 kilometers from the entrance, on a muddy, elevated rock, surrounded by water. They were weak from lack of food, but hopes of rescue were high. In order to make this rescue, however, highly skilled divers had to navigate miles of dark, murky, and narrow tunnels swirling with strong currents. They had to go into the belly of the cave to rescue those who had been swallowed by it. And the hardest part, was bringing the unskilled, untrained boys safely out.

This cave rescue is not unlike the predicament that you and I were found in. They were trapped about 1 kilometer under a mountain, you and I are trapped under a heap of sin and death. They were weak from lack of nourishment and some suffered from illness, we are weak from a lack of spiritual food and the sin that infects us. A rescue mission was dangerous, required perfect planning, and would even cost a life – in both cases.

Like the cave divers who rescued the boys needed to be able to navigate the swirling currents and murky waters of the cave to bring, not only themselves home safely, but also the boys, so Jesus had to be able to navigate the pulling temptations of sin and the valley of the shadow of death to bring “many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). We are not able to rescue ourselves from sin. We aren’t able to prevent our own spiritual death. And every moment we remain trapped in sin is one moment closer to our eternal condemnation. We need a rescue. We need one who can come to where we are, perfectly execute a rescue plan, and strengthen us along the way as we await the complete fulfilment of that rescue.

In all of this, the birth of Christ that we just celebrated can never be separated from the passion of Christ that lies just months ahead in the church year. His coming into our lives is closely tied with him saving our lives. The baby of Bethlehem is the future victim on Golgotha. The Author and Source of our salvation could not win that salvation unless he was born so that he could die. And in order to be born and die, he needed to become our brother, yet bigger in every way.

Remember how I said that Jesus was like your big brother in that you grew up together and experienced all the same things together? Well, there’s a couple more things that he’s experienced that you haven’t yet. They are pretty big things. The first, will sooner or later happen to every single one of us. It’s death. I don’t know if you have thought much about your own death yet. But in a way, death enslaves us all. In fact, the Bible even says that Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:15). Yes, I think of death enslaving us because there is no escaping it. But are you really enslaved by the fear of death? I didn’t really think so until I began to ask myself questions about what if it happened right now? Often I don’t fear it because I put it out of my mind and I know where I am going. But what if it happened right now? What will happen to those I’ve left behind? What if it was a long, drawn out process of hospital visits, and stays in a nursing home, and a huge toll on me physically, emotionally, and mentally? Then it becomes a little more real. Death, is not something that is glorious or glamorous as many heroic tales would have us believe.

However, your brother Jesus has been there. He led the way. He went in first. And he took upon himself the ugliest part of death. There certainly wasn’t anything glamorous about the way that Jesus died. His body was disfigured and stained from the beatings he sustained before he even went to the cross. And as he hung on the cross, he suffered dehydration and suffocation. But that wasn’t even the ugliest part. That wasn’t even the worst of suffering. The worst was having God the Father turn his back on him. The worst was being abandoned by God so that he would not save him from the tormenting pits of sin. He would not be rescued, but God laid on him the iniquity of us all. That’s the ugliest part of death. Not the physical pain you may endure or the mental instability, but the guilt of sin and condemnation from God. These things you will never know because your brother took the blame for you and was punished in your place.

And he did it so that you could share in the last thing with him. The first verse from the reading today, verse 10, is a little bit hard to order – a little bit hard to read. There’s a number of different thoughts all heaped upon one another because they are all so tightly connected. But I’m going to read it in a little different order to bring out the sense for this last part of the sermon. “It was fitting that God should make the pioneer of your salvation complete through what he suffered by bringing many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). The last thing you and your brother will experience together is glory. Because he was born in the flesh to call you brothers and sisters, because he gave up his life in your place but as true God took it back up again, you will pass through dangers and death to inherit the same kind of glory that you brother Jesus inherited. That’s what the word “help” depicts in verse 16. “surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants” (Heb 2:16). The word there is “laid hold of.” “Laid hold of to draw out.” I picture one of those Thai Navy Seals laying hold of one of those boys, looking him squarely in the eyes and saying, “trust me,” as they go under the water and he draws him through the tunnels to the surface. It’s your big brother Jesus laying hold of you, looking you squarely in the eyes and saying, “trust me.” So that as you breathe your last here on earth, the next will be your first breath with him in glory.

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A Light has Dawned (December 24, 2018)

January 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

A Light has Dawned

Isaiah 9:2-7

In a few moments, after the sermon, we are going to dim the lights in the sanctuary and watch as light goes out from the Christ candle and is passed throughout the congregation. It’s maybe something you’ve done year after year. But why? Why do we do this? Is it just tradition? Is it simply emotionally moving and hearkens back to all that we know and love about Christmas Eve services? Or is there something deeper? It’s actually meant to symbolize the Light going out into the world and overcoming the darkness in the world around us, and in our own hearts.

Isaiah starts out his prophecy of the Christ child by saying, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2). But Isaiah seems to be presuming a lot with this prophecy. And I may seem to be presuming a lot by saying that this text is still relevant for us to read and study today. Is our world really that dark? It may be a bit flawed, but completely dark? Pitch black? That’s what Isaiah says, “people walking in darkness” (Is 9:2). In fact, he even takes it a step farther and says they are “living in the land of deep darkness” (Is 9:2).

But that was then, this is now. Isaiah lived in the land of Israel. He was warning the people of Judah that they would be threatened and eventually invaded by a nation that was not afraid to make examples of the conquered. They would torture those they conquered, and pile up the bodies in pyramids. But this looming shadow of darkness and destruction was not the darkness that Isaiah was warning the people of. The impending destruction by a foreign nation was not the darkness that the people of Judah really needed to worry about. It was the darkness of their own nation. It was the darkness they were walking around and living in. And Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what that darkness looked like.

People do not care for one another but are always fighting “neighbor against neighbor.” There is rampant substance abuse, as people are considered “heroes at drinking wine” – “staying up late at night till they are inflamed with wine.” There is immorality, the country is full of poor, and yet there is no mercy for them – no compassion. There is no respect for the elderly. Many people have walked away from true faith and have turned to the occult. Keep in mind, these are all things that Isaiah points out about the land he lived in – things that the almighty God called them out on.

Yet, doesn’t that description, that condemnation, sound strikingly similar to the land we live in today? It seems that the more things change, the more they really stay the same. Do we not see abhorrent violence when we flip to any news station? Do we not see the collapse of family as respectful values are not passed down to the next generation? Do we not see neighbors turning on neighbor over the pettiest things, and when love is shown, it’s however you want to define it? We too have problems. We too are living in darkness. But sadly, many are ok with it. Many have gotten used to it. And those who do see it as a problem think that something can be done about it. But that would be taking the darkness too lightly. That only comes from a flawed understanding of just how dire this darkness is.

The first time Isaiah uses the word “darkness,” he uses a fairly general term that can signify “distress” or “dread” or even “ignorance.” But then he repeats and intensifies his statement. He calls it “deep darkness.” This is the same word used in the famous Psalm 23 “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” So if we kid ourselves, thinking, it’s really not all that bad in our time and at this place, Isaiah would ask, “Oh, really? Are you not dying?” The inevitability of death casts a shadow – a gloom – over everything. This is not the way God intended the world to be. Although we think of death as something natural, it’s not! It’s a result of sin. It’s a sign that we are living in spiritual darkness.

It gets worse. Isaiah says we are walking in darkness. We stroll around in it casually. This is not something we were thrust into kicking and screaming. We willingly embrace it. And you probably see it best in situations where you are faced with a choice between serving others or serving self. We tend to gravitate toward the self-serving choice – at the very least, the thought lingers there in our minds making the choice a little more difficult.

The sad fact is, the world is a dark place. We tend to think we can make it better. We think we can rid the world of things like violence, oppression, poverty, and racism. Yet can we even drive the darkness our of our own hearts? Perfectly? Permanently? Can you stop yourselves from the dark effects that sin has in our lives? From aging? From dying? If we cannot rid our lives of darkness, why would we think we can rid the world of it?

The good news is, a light has dawned! And this light is not something man produced. It just appeared. It “dawned.” This light is not a relief program. No program can rid the world of darkness. This light I a person. More specifically, this light is a baby boy – the child born for us, the Son given for us. It is Jesus, the Christ.

This child is a human being, born of his human mother, Mary. Yet he is much more. He is also God – as seen by the titles and responsibilities he is given. He is the “Wonderful Counselor.” Unlike all other counselors whose advice is tainted by the fact that they do not know everything, this counselor does know everything. He’s also “Might God” – the child who can do anything and always follows through on his promises. He is the “Everlasting Father” – source of life, and compassionate in preserving life. Finally, he’s called the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). He is able to create perfect harmony, peace. Most notably, he establishes peace between a holy God who hates sin and people who sin every day. God’s just punishment for sin, and his mercy for sinners meet in the child who was born to die. That’s what the angels sang about on that first Christmas Eve. “Peace for all peoples,” brought by this newborn prince.

Clearly, the Bible identifies him as both fully God and fully man. But why? Why did this “Light” need to be both God and man? Well, if God simply wanted to tell us how to think about darkness and sin, he could have just sent a man. In fact, that’s what he did with the prophets, who gave us God’s Law which shows us how to live a bright, beautiful life. If God wanted to give us an example of how to live a perfectly bright life, he could have just sent an angel, like the angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary. God could have just said, “Everyone, look at how compassionate and thoughtful Gabriel is. Look at how he always thinks of others before himself. Look at how his entire existence is about giving me, God, glory. Just live like Gabriel!” But that would not have been enough. We needed one who could snuff out the darkness. We normally think of light being “snuffed.” But we needed darkness – sin and its consequences, including death – to be snuffed out. That required the Light to be both God and man. The Light needed to be man, so that he could be sacrificed for our sin. The child needed a beating heart and blood in its veins, so that it could be shed. But the life of one man, could never atone for another. So the Light needed to also be God, so that the sacrifice made when his light was snuffed out was valuable enough to pay for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived.

The gift of Christ is a gift you receive with humility. There are some gifts that one cannot receive without humility. Imagine for Christmas your significant other gave you the gift of a gym membership for one year. You look at your gut. You look at the certificate for the gym. You make the connection. Your loved one is telling you something – perhaps something you do not want to acknowledge. It is no different with this greatest Christmas gift, the Light of Christ. In giving this gift, God is saying to you and to me, “You are broken, and lost, but I’m here to do something about it.” The situation is so dire, it will require the perfect man, Jesus, to die for you. You do not receive that gift without humility.

So, our prayer this Christmas Eve is that the Spirit would give us just that – humility. We need him to help us understand we cannot cleanse ourselves of sin, cannot overcome temptation, cannot fix our fractured relationships (including the one with our Creator), cannot outrun the shadow of death. We are immersed in too much darkness. But a Light has dawned. And this light can do all those things. The Light has done all those things.

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The Child that Broke the Mold (December 23, 2018)

January 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

The Child that Broke the Mold

Genesis 4:1-2, 6-8, 25-5:5

The first reading for today, from Genesis 4 and 5, paints a pretty dismal picture, doesn’t it? It doesn’t really seem like the kind of text we would read and meditate on just days before Christmas. It doesn’t seem to follow the Advent crescendo to the bursting joy and glory of Christmas. It seems out of place with its talk of murder and death. But this is exactly what we need to hear just before Christmas. Without the reality of what the world became after the fall – filled with death and ruin – we cannot fully appreciate the birth of the child in the manger. We could never cherish the Savior enough unless we realize just what he saves us from. So, we have the true story of Cain and Abel – the story of all mankind.

Before we dig into the text, however, I want you to consider which death is more shocking. There’s two of them in this reading. There’s the obvious one: Cain killing Abel. But then there’s also the one right at the end of the reading. “Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died” (Gen 5:5). With either death, it wasn’t meant to be this way. God’s creation was very good. He created mankind in his own image. And we know from scripture it’s not a physical image, it’s a spiritual image. It’s shown in the blessings God gave them right after he created them. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘be fruitful and increase in number;’” (It’s God, in a way, giving man and woman his creative power – the ability to bring forth new life!) “’fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (It’s God entrusting mankind with good dominion over his creation). So, being made in the image of God, Man knew God’s will, agreed with God’s will – acknowledging that his will is best. And in the image of God, Adam and Eve joyfully did God’s will.

That is, until they selfishly valued their own will over God’s. And you can immediately see the effects of what the sinful image does. They no longer loved selflessly as God does, but rather selfishly tried to cover up their sin and blame others. Out of love God banished them from the garden so that they would not eat from the Tree of Life again and have to live in this broken image forever. Then God gave them painful reminders in childbirth and working the ground that this isn’t the perfection that God intended. He desired something better for them. So he also made them a promise – the promise that a child would be born to undo what they had done.

The effects of sin continue to be seen throughout their lives. Adam and Eve abruptly met the reality of sin when one day Cain came home, but Abel didn’t. Their first encounter with death – the death that God warned about – was not by natural causes… well, what we now call natural, it certainly wasn’t what God intended. Their first introduction to death was when their oldest son murdered their second child. Cain didn’t appreciate God’s gifts. He didn’t want to accept the blame for his own sinful attitude and downcast face. Like his parents, he didn’t want to repent. And since he couldn’t silence God, he silenced his brother Abel – who, even though he probably didn’t gloat over Cain, his very existence was a reminder of God’s disapproval with Cain’s sin.

It was the first toll of the bell. The first vivid reminder of what sin does. Then you read through Genesis 5 in its entirety, and you are really forced to come to grips with what sin means. Every 3 verses you hear that bell toll again and again and again. “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness… and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died” (Gen 5:3-5). “Then Seth lived… became the father of Enosh… lived some more… and then he died… Then Enosh lived… and then he died… and then he died… and then he died…” (Gen 5). Vayamot… vayamot… vayamot. That one Hebrew word shows up again and again every three verses ringing out the toll of sin. It’s like Adam and Eve had opened up the floodgates of death on all humanity and there’s no hope of stopping it. Now all throughout history and throughout our very lives, that bell tolling has become the all too familiar backdrop. Vayamot… vayamot… vayamot. Anyone who lives, will one day die.

Just as sin was increasing in Cain’s sullen attitude, we see the same sin increase in the world around us. No longer are we born in God’s image, but rather the image of our sinful parents going all the way back to sinful Adam. Whereas Adam originally knew God’s will, agreed with his will, and did it, we must now be taught God’s will. We often disagree with it – not seeing that his intentions are good and gracious. And we often refuse to do his will. As sons and daughters of Father Adam and Mother Eve, we know that our intellect is often frighteningly dull in matters relating to God. Our emotions often deceive us into trying to find joy in what is displeasing to God. And, with the apostle Paul, we must confess that our sinful will is no longer in harmony with God’s holy will (Rm 7:14-17). Because of our sinfulness, the bell will one day toll for us as well. My story and your story will be added to all the others. He lived, he perhaps had sons and daughters. He lived some more. And then he died. Vayamot.

We’ve become so used to its tolling, that it no longer phases us – not as it should. Yes, we are saddened by death – especially when it is someone we know. But we’ve come to a point where we think of it as natural. The bell tolls without fail. That wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t natural for Adam and Eve to find their son murdered. Nor was it even natural for Adam to die “of old age.” And once we realize how this tolling bell pierces mankind with the severity of sin, we realize the need for the child who would be pierced for mankind. We realize the desperate need to silence it’s tolling.

There came a night when that bell was finally consigned to silence. It happened, when God miraculously brought life into the world. That maybe brings a whole new meaning to the hymn “Silent Night.” Every child is a miracle. Any parent knows that. The births of your own children probably stick out in your mind with vivid joy. But there are some births that bring joy to all mankind. Eve’s first child – the first child to ever be born – was a reminder that God would make good on his promise! Despite their sin, despite their banishment from the garden of Eden and their specific punishments, God’s promise stands, “[the woman’s offspring] will crush your head, [Satan]” (Gen 3:15). And here you have it. Not the Child himself – not the Savior – but a child. The first child since the promise. The first reminder that through a long line of decedents would finally come the Savior.

So, we have Eve’s child, the first reminder of the promised Child. Then you have Mary’s child, in the gospel reading. And Mary’s child is the fulfillment of that promise – the child who would break the mold of Genesis chapter 5. All along, quietly but steadily, that bell has been tolling as the backdrop to all history. “And then he died… and then he died… and then he died.” A reminder of the mold that every descendant of Adam would be born in his own image (Gen 5:3) not God’s image. That bell tolled for every person we read about in Scripture, the people we knew who are no longer with us – a solemn toll that there is no other mold, no one escapes the death knell ever since the sin of Adam and Eve. But Mary’s child broke that mold – conceived by the Holy Spirit and born in God’s image. This Child would die too, but his would be different. His death would silence the bell for good.

A brief side note. You were maybe wondering about the Revelation reading and the intense imagery in chapter 12. The woman in that reading is not specifically Mary. Well, it is Mary, but it isn’t. The child, the “male child who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (Rev 12:5), is indeed Christ. And yes, Christ was born of Mary, but the woman in the reading is actually the Church. You can rightly say that Jesus was born out of the church – that line of true believers who held to the promise of the Savior just as we do today. It’s the adornments – clothed with the sun, moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars – that move us away from Mary specifically to the Church in a more general sense. But the really interesting thing about this reading is that it tells the story of Christ from God’s perspective. We’ve seen the details from the human perspective. We read it every year from Luke 2. But here we get a glimpse into what God sees. How fiercely the red dragon, Satan, fought to prevent that child, or snatch him up just after birth. We know of Herod’s plan to get rid of the newborn King – a plan, no doubt, conceived by Satan. What else was going on behind the scenes that we don’t see? What other dangers lurked that God delivered this child from and spared us the details. Could there have been danger on the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that God held at bay? What if they couldn’t find even the simple shelter of the stable? Satan no doubt worked hard to prevent the work of the Savior because he knew it would silence the bell that he started tolling long ago.

But Satan didn’t stand a chance. God is a keeper of promises. He loves to make promises to spur us on, like he did right after Adam and Eve sinned. He gave them hope and a future. He showed them his mercy, a Savior to believe in. And God makes good on his promises. Always. Just as Cain, the first child, was a reminder that God would make good on his promise to send a Savior, so the Savior’s birth (traced through the line of Seth), and his resurrection is a reminder that there is rebirth. There is life! There is a joyous resurrection awaiting all who believe. The bell may still toll. The death knell that started in Genesis 5 still rings on. But that toll is an empty toll for those who put their hope in the Savior – the Savior who triumphed over the grave so that it lost it’s sting. And it all started with the birth of a very special child.

One last thing I want to point out. After Adam and Eve learned, in a very personal way, the toll of sin in the death of Abel, they did not lose hope. They did not despair of life or even refuse to bring more children into the world because of the darkness in it. They did not turn away from God. The faith which the Promise had awakened in their hearts led them to cling to their God. Eve saw the gracious and mighty hand of God in the birth of her new son. In such faith she named him Seth (meaning “substitute”), saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him” (Gen 4:25). Here we find a different spirit from the one which we met when Adam and Eve first sinned, and when Cain killed his brother. Here, we find a spirit of hope and faith. Mary’s child, then, the Christ child would be the ultimate Substitute. Not simply in the place of one lost son, but in the place of every son and daughter than has been lost to sin throughout history. This child would break the mold of sinful flesh, and silence the toll of sin once and for all.

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How a King Cleans House (December 16, 2018)

December 18, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

How a King Cleans House

Zephaniah 3:14-17

Have you done it yet? Have you cleaned up the house, filled the fridge and gotten ready for guests? Just after Thanksgiving my wife and I took some time to wet vac the carpets to get ready for the Christmas brunch at our house. There were a few stains we wanted to clean up after a year of kids running around. We still have to clean up a bit, but that probably won’t happen until we get closer to the day. The law of entropy (law of chaos) happens a lot faster with kids in the house, so it doesn’t pay to clean too early. But we are getting there. If you are having company for the holidays, you maybe have started the process of cleaning up the house as well.

Recently, as my wife and I were cleaning up a bit before some close friends came over, we noticed something interesting. There’s a difference between how you clean up for close family and friends verses cleaning for a first-time visitor or very important guest. For example, if you are cleaning up for close family, your cleaning is probably going to be more relaxed and not as thorough. After all, they know who you are. They know your life. They aren’t going to think any less of you if you don’t have a fresh, decorative hand towel out in the bathroom. But, if you are cleaning before your future in-laws visit, or before a college recruiter visits, you will notice all the clutter and every smudge. You will want your house in picture perfect condition.

Well, there IS a highly esteemed guest coming. He’s actually given you a list of preparations to be completed before he arrives. It’s in the gospel reading from this Sunday and last. “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Lk 3:4). “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance… every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk 3:8-9). Repentance means turning your hearts and minds away from sinful thoughts, away from sinful and selfish motives and set your minds on God’s will. It’s what we talked about last week. Straightening out your heart and aligning it with God’s will. Then, from that true heart of repentance flows actions that are pleasing to God. It’s a heart that is ready to welcome the King!

But who could ever do that? Maybe we can keep much, even most of God’s will by our actions…. Maybe. But who could ever do so with the right attitude and heart. Who could really do so out of love and joy for their Savior 100% of the time? Can our hearts ever be made pure and clean? Can they really ever be prepared to receive our Savior? Our sinfulness runs around our hearts like a toddler messing up our motives and creating more messes than we could ever hope to straighten out.

Imagine this. I’m going back to the house cleaning illustration. Think of all the things you have to clean up and tidy up before your guests arrive before Christmas. Better yet, think of all the things you would want done before a very important person comes to visit for Christmas Dinner. There’s cleaning, there’s picking up, there’s cooking. Maybe you even need to get rid of that ratty couch and make a few improvements. And as you are scurrying around trying to keep your head on straight, you hear a knock at the door. It’s a man offering his cleaning services. He’s got an apron on, a tote filled with cleaning supplies, and a number of other things with him. He’s hunched over from all the strenuous work he’s done. In fact, he doesn’t just offer his cleaning services, he’s insistent upon it, almost barging in as he immediately gets to work. He dusts and vacuums, scrubs the floors and the toilets, even cleans the grout and polishes the floors! By the time he’s done, everything is immaculate. And when you ask him how much you owe him, he says that his services are freely given to anyone who admits they need it.

I know that’s a pretty ridiculous scenario, but isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done for you? Jesus enters your heart unasked and finds it a complete and utter mess. Yet he doesn’t come to ridicule you for it. He doesn’t come to shame. He comes to do something about it. He comes to clean house. That’s what the blood shed on the cross means for you. It means he knows you have a problem and he already did something about it – paying the full price of all sin. It’s what the waters of baptism mean, the cleansing waters which purify you from all sin. It’s what the Lord’s Supper is, a forgiveness for every sin that stains your heart and the strength from Christ to turn our hearts to God!

And this gift of cleansing forgiveness is given freely to anyone who does not turn him away – anyone who admits they need it. No matter how disastrous our lives may seem, no matter how ashamed we are of the condition of our hearts. No heart is too polluted, no sin too great for your Savior to cleanse. That is why he came. He came not to be served as a noble guest, but to serve and give up his life to cleanse you from sin.

Let’s jump back to that scenario once again – you know, the bizarre scenario where someone you didn’t know comes to clean your entire house for free. Yeah, it’s about to get even more bizarre. When the lowly servant is finally says, “It is finished.” When he’s finished cleaning the house, he stands up straight – for what seems like the first time since he entered the house. And as he does, he removes his apron and grunge clothes to reveal the finest clothes of white and gold. You see that he is most definitely a king! He is THE king you’ve been expecting – the very important person, the one who made the demands of all the things that need to be prepared. He came himself, and met those demands for you – every single one of them and to a degree you could never hope to accomplish on your own.

Brothers and sisters, I know my illustration is pretty strange. It probably seems as if it doesn’t really fit well because that would never happen in real life! I get it. No one would ever do something like that. No king would ever prepare his own way. But isn’t that just the point. Who would ever go to such lengths, meet such high demands, put in all the work yet give you all the credit, and do it completely free of charge? Who does that?! Well, your Savior did it. You and I say, “That would never happen, but it did.” And we aren’t just talking about cleaning up a house. He entered into your life – entered humanity by taking on our very flesh. He cleaned up your very life by giving up his. His sacrifice cleansed every stain of sin. And now he reigns in your heart as a majestic king, and you his esteemed guest! He becomes the host of your own heart, and urges you to sit down at his feet and relax as he guides your life.

There’s really two pictures here that show just what kind of reign Christ has in your life. He is a Mighty Warrior, yet a gentle Father. You are safe within his care. Your God conquers his enemies completely so that they can never threaten another soul. He is a Mighty Warrior, not to conquer and subdue you, but to free his people and bring them peace. Then, verse 17 moves quickly to this warrior’s gentle side. He will delight in you, quiet you with his love, and rejoice over you. That sounds more like a father – or even a mother – than it does a Mighty Warrior. But the Lord is both. He is mighty, fierce, and firm when dealing with your enemies of sin, death, and Satan. But he is gentle and compassionate when dealing with you.

There’s only one thing left to do. Your king has come into your heart as a lowly servant to clean house for you. He has defeated your enemies and encourages you to rest in his loving embrace. The only thing left to do is rejoice! It’s actually what this reading starts with. The prophet heaps up calls to rejoice and celebrate. “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem” (Zeph 3:14). If we took a moment to read through this whole book, listen to the prophet’s message in its entirety, we might be left with a bit of an uneasy feeling rather than rejoicing. It’s a short book, but the vast majority of it is a stern warning of destruction. Yet, this is a journey. This is our journey. Yes, God is very stern with sinful people. He disciplines sinners and eradicates sin. But he does so in a way that spares you. In fact, he does so in a way that purifies you – cleans you, through and through. And having been made pure and spotless by the Servant who suffered in your place, you can now rejoice! It’s the only appropriate thought and emotion coming out of the dark destruction of sin and your enemies. One word cannot contain the joy, so the prophet piles up four! Sing! Shout aloud! Be glad and rejoice!

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Let God be the Judge (December 9, 2018)

December 10, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Let God be the Judge

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

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

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

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

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

Some would think of a vocation simply as a job you do, maybe an occupation. Others think of a vocation as your passion – something you are pursuing. In Luther’s day, “vocation” was understood to apply only to those called to religious service. Yet, as Luther studied God’s word, he began to realize that “vocation” is much more than that. The Bible points out that a human being is not called away from this world; rather, one is called to enter and engage the world, especially those who are in need, powerless, or suffering. This means that every person is called to live his or her life in relationship to others. While young Luther was raised with the notion that only the work of religious professionals really “mattered” in the world – I think we fall into that mindset at times too – yet the Bible shows that we all form part of an interdependent web in which life and health are sustained and supported. Jesus even said, “anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose their reward” (Mk 9:41). So, the test for vocation is not “Are you doing something religious?” but “Are you serving the real needs of your neighbor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

December 4, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Pay attention to the signs!

Luke 21:25-36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greetings from God (November 25, 2018)

November 26, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Greetings from God

Revelation 1:4-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hope on the Horizon (November 18, 2018)

November 19, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Hope on the Horizon

Daniel 12:1-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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