An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Thank God for Grace (March 10, 2019)

March 13, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Thank God for Grace

Hebrews 4:12-16

Jesus is good! The way he resisted every single one of Satan’s temptations. Not just resisting the actions, but the sinful desires as well. And we might think, “Yeah, but he’s Jesus!” I know you wouldn’t state it quite that flippantly, but there is this sense – because we cannot fully grasp how Jesus could have the fullness of both natures, fully God but also fully, completely human in every sense of the word. So, we get this sense that of course Jesus can do it. He’s God’s Son after all. But to simply go with that would be to miss what Jesus actually did in the wilderness. Jesus felt fatigue just as you do. He felt the pangs of hunger just as you do. There were limitations to his human flesh just as you and I have. For 40 days Jesus was being tempted by Satan himself – the one who has been perfecting his craft for thousands of years. It wasn’t just these 3 temptations we have highlighted in the gospel reading (Lk 4:1-13). It was constant, ongoing temptation. The things that Jesus’ humanity craved – food, relief, display of authority – he threw at Jesus everything he had. Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15). He’s good!

Often we look at that reading and think, there is a way! I can do it too. And we take it with this Hebrews reading and say, “With Jesus’ help, I can resist temptation.” And you certainly can! Leaning and relying upon God’s Word, just as Jesus did, relying on the Holy Spirit to strengthen you, you can resist temptation. Don’t give up on that! But let’s be honest. I’m not going to be able to do it every time. I’m not going to perfectly rely upon the One who can help me resist. I’m never going to have that same phrase put at the end of my story, “Benj was tempted in every way – ….. and he sinned.” And what about those times that I’ve sinned; that you’ve sinned? Are they just swept under the rug since Jesus forgives sin?

Picture the Word of God as a scalpel in a surgeon’s hands. “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12). God’s Word, like that precise instrument, doesn’t miss a spot. It cuts to the root of sin with ease. It circles around and exposes every bit of sin even in the secret recesses and crevasses of our hearts and minds. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:13).

There is judgment for every single sin. And often the sins that we fall for are not the full-frontal attacks of outright heresy, Satanism, or gross sin. But it’s the so-called “little” things. It’s confusion of priorities. It’s gradual conformity to the world – so gradual, that we may not even realize it’s happening. These sins too are honoring the prince of this world as if bowing down to him. These sins too are replacing God’s will with something else. We are tempted in every way and there’s not a person in here who can claim that same phrase as Jesus did, “yet he did not sin.” Each and every one of us has brought God’s wrath upon ourselves. “[He] judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart… everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12-13).

We need an intercessor. We need a mediator – someone who will go before us an plead our case. We need a High Priest, who, like the priests of old went into the temple on behalf of the people, through the curtain which separated sinful people from a holy God. He approached God on their behalf and made atonement. You have such a high priest! You have a Great High Priest who didn’t just go behind the curtain of a man-made temple, but has ascended into heaven, which, like a curtain, isolated us from the presence of God. Jesus has gone through that curtain. He has entered heaven to represent you in God’s presence.

In a strong contrast with what we have – a great high priest – these verses also tell us what we do not have. A high priest who goes up into the heavens seems like a far off and distant representative – one who doesn’t really know the needs of those he’s representing. But, you “do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with [y]our weaknesses. [You] have one who has been tempted in every way, just as [you] are” (Heb 4:15). As exalted and radiant and superior as your high priest is, he is also your brother. He knows your struggle with sin. He knows where you come from. He knows the burden of being different in a dark world. He knows the ridicule you face.

The book of Hebrews is like that – weaving an intricate picture of Jesus. When the writer has put our Lord Jesus on the highest pedestal he can, then he interjects a verse like this, “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Heb 4:15). And we are amazed to hear it! So human does it reveal our Lord to be. His empathy with us results from having been tempted, like we are, while he was on earth. And yet, there is one vital difference. He was totally without sin! Being without sin, he is able to compensate for your weaknesses and to remove your sin as your perfect substitute. So, he is exalted Lord in heaven, then brought low – shown to be just as human as you are, just like you – and then he is exalted once again, but not without you! He is exalted as your Great High Priest.

Therefore, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence!” (Heb 4:16). There’s a whole sermon in that one little phrase itself, “God’s throne of grace”. When we typically think of a throne, we think of a king’s power, of his right to judge us. But God’s throne, as pictured here for us is a throne of grace. Think about it: It wouldn’t be called a “throne of grace” if God wasn’t expecting those who need grace. Here, it’s not called the “throne of justice” or the “throne of holiness” but the “throne of grace”. As a king might extend his scepter, God extends his grace. He expects to extend it. He expects those who need their wrongs covered by grace, and he does just that – not temporarily as the priests of old did, but permanently.

Contrast that with how the halls, courts, and thrones of worldly powers are largely closed to us today. Or, they are accessible only through ritual, red tape, and countless – mostly unsympathetic – intermediaries. Approaching the throne of grace requires an intermediary too, but he is most empathetic to your case. He wants you to be there. He leads you there by the hand. He jumps through all the hoops, even went to the cross so that you could approach not a throne of judgment, but a throne of grace! There’s no more red tape. No more ritual. It’s open to you.

Therefore, since we have a Great High Priest, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Heb 4:14). How can we be reluctant – shrinking back from God or cowering in the corner? Since you have one who has ascended into heaven – gone through all the red tape for you – let us hold firmly to the faith. That faith that says because Jesus died for my sins, in my place, I can approach God! That word “profess” is really better translated “confess”. “Confess” means to say the same thing. Being a “Confessional” Lutheran church, means we hold to a set of statements that we have in common. So, what’s the faith that we confess? What statement are we making and who are we confessing it with? Our faith is in Jesus. We speak what he speaks. Time and time again he says to countless individuals – each one sinful just like you and me – he says, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mt 9:2). “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Lk 8:48). Thank God for grace!

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Unfading Glory (March 3, 2019)

March 13, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Unfading Glory

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

How’s your baptism holding up? Still squeaky clean? My child was baptized just minutes ago. And like dishes fresh from the dishwasher, he’s radiant! All his sins have been washed away (Ac 22:16). But what about you? How long has it been for you? A year since you were baptized? A decade? Not trying to make anyone feel old, but… Half a century? What has all transpired since then? How many times have you found yourself in the muck of sin? How many more sins are there to be forgiven?

You know, God had established something for that – a yearly sacrifice that would be made, in addition to all the others, a sacrifice made to atone for all wrongs in the past year. It was the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. On that day, the people would all gather together. The priest would sacrifice a bull first for his own sins, so he could enter the tabernacle, then he would sacrifice a goat for the sins of the people. He would sprinkle the blood upon the ark of the covenant and then upon the people. It was saying, “your sins have been atoned for by blood.” And the eye-opening reality of this whole thing was that every year there were more sins. Every year atonement had to be made. Every year, the same thing, because sins kept piling up. 40 years in the wilderness, sins piled up. 40 annual sacrifices for sin – not to mention all the other daily and situational sacrifices that were made. And, if the Israelites were faithful to this command, a sacrifice would be made year after year – not just for decades, not just for centuries, but for millennia! Because sin kept staining those stubborn sinners.

You’ve probably noticed, that we do not offer a yearly sacrifice of atonement. No blood of bulls or goats are offered here. Why? Have we stopped sinning? You know as well as I do that that’s sadly not the case. Does God no longer demand an accounting for sin? No, that’s not it either. God’s Word stands, “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). Well, then, maybe we have something else, another ritual that serves the same purpose of atonement. What about the Lord’s Supper? That’s something we do repeatedly for the forgiveness of sins isn’t it? Well…. Yes and no. Yes, it is for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t doubt that. Jesus makes that clear. But no, it isn’t a sacrifice of atonement that we perform again and again to cover our sins every two weeks.

There’s a reason why the Old Testament Israelites sacrificed again and again every year to atone for sin. And there’s a reason why we no longer need to do so. It all goes back to Moses. Moses had the distinct honor and privilege of being able to speak with God face to face. After he had spoken with God for 40 days and 40 nights atop Mt. Sinai, he brought the two tablets of the covenant law down from the mountain to share with the people. But something remarkable had happened! Moses didn’t know it at first, but the dropped jaws and trembling looks from his fellow Israelites alerted him to it. After speaking with God face to face, Moses actually reflected God’s glory in a way. His face was radiant. And the people were awestruck by it! In fact, they were even afraid to come near Moses.

But this glory faded. The radiance of his face died down in between his conversations with God. So, Moses used a veil. And note carefully, it says both in Exodus and is especially clear in 2 Corinthians that the veil was not meant to shield the people from the radiance of his face. When he spoke with God, there was no veil. And when he conveyed what God said to the people, there was no veil. The veil was put on after he spoke with the people. 2 Corinthians gives the reason why. It was “to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away” (2 Cor 3:13) – so that they would not see the fading glory.

Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Sinaitic law. That glory was a fading glory. Glorious, yes, but it wasn’t meant to last. That’s why Moses hid the fading glory from the Israelites. That’s why sacrifices for sin had to be made again and again and again. Because this law-based covenant, the covenant where the people had to make atonement for their own sin, wasn’t the full solution for sin that God had in mind. In fact, Paul calls Moses’ law preaching “the ministry that brought death” (2 Cor 3:7) and “the ministry that condemns men” (2 Cor 3:9). So, these sacrifices weren’t the real solution to sin. Why, then, would God command something that wasn’t the real solution? Because it was their connection to the one who would be the Solution. And it drummed into their hearts and minds and lives that sin is serious, and the solution to sin would be death – a sacrifice. Bulls and goats were not the solution, but they pointed to the One who would be. Anyone seeking to attain God’s glory by the works of the law will ultimately find only condemnation. Because although the law is glorious, it’s glory fades because of our sinfulness. So, God has in mind an even more glorious covenant which never fades!

Allow me to make very real what I mean. If Neziah were not baptized, there would be another way… but only in theory. The other way is keeping the law – but only if he could keep it at every single point. Abstaining from every single thing that God forbids. Delighting in every single thing that God commands. And he would have to do this every single day of his life from the moment he woke up in the morning to the moment he went to bed. Actually, even through the night, while he sleeps and when he dreams. He could go that route. You and I could attempt to go the route of the law. But in reality, it’s already a lost cause. It’s a ministry that only brings condemnation and eternal death for two reasons. First, not one of us in able to keep a spotless record. Every single person sins every single day. And second, every single one of us is born sinful – inherited from our parents. The Bible says, “[sinful] flesh gives birth to [sinful] flesh” (Jn 3:6). It also says that “[the sinful mind] is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rm 8:7). So, since conception, you and I are already a lost cause.

That is why I’m so glad that God preserved him until today. Because I know that God works through baptism. And he’s attached a specific promise to baptism. “He saves… through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit… so that being justified by his grace, we become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Tit 3:5,7). It gives me great hope, and great assurance because it’s something I can lay my finger on. My son’s sins are forgiven because he is baptized. He is an heir of heaven with the sure hope of eternal life because God has saved him through baptism.

God has saved you through your baptism too. And your baptism stands, whether you are still wet with the water or you were baptized decades ago, not one sin clings to you. The glory of this New Covenant does not fade. Because when you were washed, you were also connected to Christ. So that, “[you] no longer live, but Christ lives in [you]” (Gal 2:20). Now you, “who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18). You never have to veil this glory because it never fades!

This glory never fades because the Solution has come. All the Old Testament sacrifices of Moses’ time and following were pointing to the one sacrifice that actually counted. “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:26-27). For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weaknesses; but the new covenant, which came after the law, appointed the Son (Heb 7:28) to be the completion and fulfillment of the Old Covenant. No more sacrifices have to be made. Nothing more needs to be done. And the moment you feel that you aren’t good enough, that your glory has faded, listen to the words he cried out from the cross once again, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).

So how is your baptism holding up now? Like Teflon, your perfect Savior covers you in those waters so that no sin – past, present, or future – sticks to you. That’s what Peter meant when he said, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 3:21). People often hear that phrase, “pledge of a good conscience” and they think, “that’s me. I’m pledging a good conscience.” But look again. You are not in that sentence. “Baptism saves you.” “Baptism is not the removal of dirt but a pledge of a good conscience… by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” So, when God looks at you, it’s as if your baptism raises its hand and declares, “clear conscience by Christ’s sacrifice!” It guarantees the unfading glory that Christ achieved for all people.

If that weren’t enough for us stubborn human beings – stubborn even in believing God’s grace served up to us – he not only declares in his Word that you are forgiven and righteous, he not only washes you clean and saves you through baptism, but he also renews that covenant with you again and again and again in the sacrament of the altar. The Lord’s Supper is not a new sacrifice. It’s not a repeated sacrifice. But it connects you again and again to the covenant of Christ’s sacrifice and the glory that does not fade. Because although the glory of Christ’s redemption never fades, it often fades from our minds. So, Christ reminds us again and again, serves forgiveness to us anew, again and again in bread and wine, body and blood, drumming it into your heart and mind and life, “It is finished.” “You are forgiven.” “You are transformed.” “Your glory in Christ will never fade.”

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Learn to Forgive (February 24, 2019)

February 28, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Learn to Forgive

Genesis 45:3-8, 15

You’ve probably heard of Joseph. Not Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary, belonging to the house and line of David. But Joseph, owner of colorful robe. Joseph, dreamer of dreams and interpreter of dreams. Joseph, second youngest of 12 sons. We are perhaps familiar with some of these details, but how familiar are we with the whole story – where things all started, where they ended up, and what all happened in between? It’s an important story. One that impacts you directly. It’s also a story that you could probably put yourself right into at one time in your life or another. Joseph was one who experienced all-time highs, and all-time lows. And handled it with such grace that couldn’t be attributed to his own character alone.

As Joseph, the second youngest of 12 brothers, you might think that you would simply be lost in the shuffle. Afterall, you weren’t the oldest son. That’s Reuben. You weren’t the baby of the family. That’s Benjamin. You were one of 10 middle children. At least 10. The Bible doesn’t really mention the daughters. But despite how things normally worked, you were your father’s favorite. Now that might sound like a good thing, but in reality, it wasn’t. Yes, things were very good between you and your father. He even made you an ornate robe of many colors. But out in the pastures, with your 10 older brothers, you got nothing but envious glares and jealous actions. In fact, when they saw you coming in the distance, they planned to kill you and say you were eaten by a wild animal. Thankfully, your oldest brother had a heart in that moment and convinced the others not to kill you, but to throw you into a cistern, a well.

So, there you are. Sitting in a dry cistern, looking up at the sky walled off by earth. You could probably hear your brothers making fun of you and plotting further harm as they ate lunch not too far off. Then ropes are lowered. You allow a hesitant wave of relief to wash over you as you hope they’ve all had a change of heart. Instead, when you finally make it out of the pit, you are greeted by a trade caravan. Your hands are bound with those same ropes that meant freedom just a moment ago. And you see your brother Judah counting the silver he had just been given for you. You were dragged to far off land and sold to a man named Potiphar. Yet even when things started to look up and you found yourself in charge of all of Potiphar’s household, suddenly you hit rock bottom once again. Falsely accused of trying to mistreat your master’s wife – when really it was the other way around. You were imprisoned in a dark dungeon and forgotten.

Finally, through a miraculous turn of events, you are brought straight from the dungeon to pharaoh himself to interpret strange dreams that had been keeping him up at night. And when God revealed to you that these dreams meant 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine, and you told Pharaoh the interpretation, you were put in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Only with respect to the throne was Pharaoh greater than him. Talk about a rags to riches story in the blink of an eye! And finally, after the 7 years of plenty, when the years of famine had just begun, you finally received the icing on the cake! Your brothers… standing before you… bowing down to you hoping to buy grain.

It had probably been 20 years since that fateful day your brothers threw you into a cistern and set into motion a long series of terrible events! And now, here you stand, there they bow. You having everything they need, and they don’t even recognize you! What are you going to do? What would you have done in that moment? What have you been plotting and planning for 20 long years for them?

Joseph forgave! He could have had an angry argument with his brothers. He could have pinned them to the wall with their guilt and sin. He could have thrown them into prison. He could have resurrected his old God-given dreams of ruling over his family – now fulfilled because of all that has transpired. But instead he forgave! So utterly unconcerned with getting revenge, his first question actually had nothing to do with past history. Rather, he asked about present circumstances. “‘I am Joseph! Is my father still living?’ But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence” (Gen 45:3). Even after 20 years or so, their cruel actions still haunted them. It seems as though the brothers assumed Joseph was no longer alive. Now, they are confronted with not only a living Joseph, but a Joseph who has great power and authority over them. And although he had every right – humanly speaking – to enact his revenge, to punish them, he forgave!

That’s the thing with sinfulness. It has a tendency to wrong. And when wronged ourselves, we hold on to the wrong until an opportune time to get revenge or to teach a lesson. We feel that it is our duty to make the other person pay for their wrongdoing – for their sin. And forgiving?! Well, that’s out of the question. Forgiving makes it as if it never happened. Forgiving means I wasn’t bothered by it. Forgiving means it wasn’t really wrong. That’s our attitude, isn’t it. If I forgive, then the person who did me wrong gets off scot free and doesn’t learn anything from this whole ordeal. They may even go on to do it to me again!

Did we learn nothing from the cross? Did we learn nothing from Jesus who himself was wrongly handed over? Who was accused of crimes he didn’t commit? Who not only was crucified unjustly, but faced God’s wrath for all the sins of the whole world – that he never committed. And yet, he prayed for those who were mistreating him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). That’s letting go in a serious way. Because between you and me, it doesn’t really matter who wrongs who more. Jesus says very clearly, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28). “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). But for God, there has to be vengeance. There has to be payment for sin. Because God is Holy, judging and punishing sin, there has to be a zero sum in the end. But because he is also merciful, he doesn’t punish you. He forgives. He let go of that wrath hung around your neck, and laid it all on his Son, Jesus.

That’s what forgiving means. Forgiving does not mean they didn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt you. Forgiving is simply letting go. It’s saying that although I have every right to take my vengeance upon you, I’m going to let go of that right and let God handle it. And God did handle it. He punished every single sin, for every person who ever did you wrong. He punished that sin in Christ’s crucifixion. And do you know what else he took to the cross? He took your sin there. He took all of your wrongs, and all the times you have mistreated others. And rather than punishing you for your sin with the only just punishment – that is, hell – he forgave you, and punished Christ. Therefore, let go of your wrath, because that’s what God did for you.

Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’” (Gen 45:4). It wasn’t because they couldn’t hear him. It was to dispel their terror and fear. It was to embrace them in love. “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen 45:4-5). All this time they thought he was dead. All this time that guilt hung over their heads. All this time they had to look at their father’s downcast and depressed face. And Joseph had every right to be angry with them. The truth is plain, they sold him here! But instead Joseph lets go of that anger, that vengeance, and covers over any past hostility with love and forgiveness. And such a joyous reunion it was because of that love! “He kissed all his brothers and wept over them” (Gen 45:15). Moreover, they could all see how events meant to hurt or harm were used by God to bring about his deliverance. Finally he could see God’s plan and declare, “God sent me to save lives” (Gen 45:5).

He didn’t see it right away though. He probably didn’t hear it in the rude and despising words of his 10 older brothers. He probably didn’t see it as he stared up at the sky surrounded by walls of earth on all sides as he sat at the bottom of a cistern. He probably didn’t feel it as he was bound and shoved into the hands of the Midianite merchants and dragged on tired feet all the way down to Egypt. God had abandoned him, he must have thought. Just as his brothers abandoned him – even worse, sold him – to a far-off land. I’m not even sure if the fog began to lift as he climbed the ranks in Potiphar’s house. Probably not the plan, but at least some of God’s favor was finally coming his way. Until once again he hit rock bottom, thrown into prison. It probably wasn’t even when Joseph rose to take charge of all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, that he really saw God’s plan. Only, when God used Joseph, after all of this, to preserve a remnant through a long and severe famine, to save lives by a great deliverance, did he finally see God’s plan.

So, what was the plan? Preserving a family from a severe famine, and many nations along with them? Yes, but more than that. Preserving the promise of the Savior through Abraham’s line? Yes, but more than that. Creating a remnant, a chosen people, to safeguard that promise until the time of its fulfillment in Christ? Yes, but even more than that. In all of this, God was preserving spiritual life, eternal life, through the Messiah, who would come from a specific people, preserved in Egypt, because of a specific promise. And so, it all comes back, once again, to forgiveness. If Joseph used his advantage over his brothers to treat them as he had been treated, the family would be lost. The line of the Savior would be lost. You and I would be lost. Only because of God’s plan could the brothers truly set aside their guilt and come close to Joseph. Because God had turned sinful plots into blessing.

So, although you may not see it now in the sinfulness of others who mistreat you. You may not hear it in wicked words spoken to you. You may not feel it as an undeserved measure of hate is poured out upon you. In those moments when your heart is filled with rage, your mind is set on vengeance, and your tongue is ready with a condemning word, stop. Look to the cross. Look to the cross because that is where the roles are reversed. It is God who should be filled with rage. It is God who should be taking vengeance upon you. It is God who could so easily speak a condemning word to you. But he didn’t. He forgave. He let go. And he laid it all on Christ. You can reveal this loving and forgiving Christ to others by forgiving them when you are wronged and loving them even when they don’t deserve it. And who knows, when the fog lifts from your life, who else will be able to trace their spiritual life to Joseph’s forgiveness, and to Jesus’ forgiveness, all because you revealed Christ in your forgiveness.

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This is going to be good (February 17, 2019)

February 21, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

This is going to be good

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Pay attention, because this is going to be a good one! There’s going to be a captivating intro that grabs everyone’s attention and piques your interest in such a way that you can’t wait for me to go on and say more! I’m going to reveal a shiny new gem from this section of Scripture that no one had ever considered. I’m going to make it applicable to every single one of you. And I’m going to wrap it up with such a good conclusion that your hearts are set ablaze, ready to conquer the world for Christ.

I wish I could say that about every sermon. I wish every one was so perfect that it really changed hearts and made a difference in your life. But the truth is, sometimes I have weeks where I get a lot of time to dig into the text and consider the perfect applications, and other times, like this week, well, you have a baby and life gets very busy. There’s a lot going on. And I find myself working on my sermon in little snippets here and there. Now, that might lead you to a pretty certain conclusion as to which week the sermon is going to be better. But the reality might surprise you! I know it often surprises me.

Not always, but often, it’s the weeks that got away from me that end up being better sermons. No guarantees here, though. It’s the weeks where there is so much on my plate that I can’t possibly devote the time and effort that I would like to that end up turning out best. How can that be? What’s going on? And I don’t think I’m alone in this. You maybe see it in others as well. How can there be those people, who, despite something overwhelming or terrible they are going through, they manage to get through it with such grace – or even turn it around and make it a strength? How can Paul truly boast gladly in weaknesses? How can he delight in insults, in hardships, in persecutions?

Well, let’s clear one thing up first. This doesn’t appear to be one of those cases where through trial and adversity, Paul was actually able to better his craft and become a better missionary for it. This isn’t a tree growing strong because of the strong winds its subjected to. This isn’t learning how to succeed through failures. This is most definitely a shortcoming. We aren’t ever told what the “thorn in his flesh” was, but we are told about it. He pleaded for God to take it away. He categorized it with weaknesses, insults, hardships, and difficulties. He concludes simply by saying he is considered weak by this thorn. And to top it all off, he explains that its very purpose is to keep him from becoming conceited – literally, so that he cannot exalt or praise himself.

Why? Why is that a good thing? Why would God want to do that? Well, Paul did have quite a bit that he could have rightly boasted in. He says in verse 6, “Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth” (2 Cor 12:6). In the previous chapter he lays out the rights he has to brag. “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am more” (2 Cor 11:21-23). But Paul does not want this to get in the way of what he was really trying to do. He wasn’t trying to point to himself and how great he was. All he wanted to do was point to Christ. If he pointed to himself, people might think that he can gain such a following because of his impressive credentials and work ethic. But when he empties himself and points to Christ, then something amazing happens!

Going back to my previous example, my introduction about great sermons, sometimes God has to give me a rough week. Sometimes he has to give me so much to do that I can’t put all the work I would like to put into a sermon. Sometimes he gives me the time and lets me put all the work in it that I want, but still leaves me frustrated at how poorly my manuscript turned out. He has to do that because sometimes I can get a big head. Sometimes I can get swept away and hyped up on how great my phraseology is and how seamlessly I moved from one point to the next. Sometimes he has to knock me down a few pegs, empty me of myself, and show me how truly great his Word is when I am forced to just step out of the way. It’s interesting, but I often hear more comments about a sermon when I can take only little to no credit for it – when I truly must say, “Glory be to God.”

A wise man once said, “As long as we sinners imagine that we still have some power, we are unfit instruments for the Lord’s hands” (Lenski). Clay jars, I believe is the was Paul put it. A clay jar that’s full of itself is of little value. There would be no room to pour anything into – it would just be a lump of clay. But a clay jar that has a large void in the middle – that’s empty – that’s valuable because of what you fill it with. “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor 4:7). Nothing special about the clay jar itself, but wow how that treasure inside really shines! And Paul continues on with this illustration – not just to talk about the emptiness of the clay jar, but its weakness as well. “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:7-9). We are weak, but he is strong!

Therefore, Paul rightly boasts all the more gladly about his weaknesses. Why? “So that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12:9). So that when people look at Paul they don’t just see a bold missionary or strong orator; so that they don’t just see a wise and learned man. But that they would see Christ! Christ, who gives Paul the boldness of heart and the beautiful message of Christ to share. Christ, who gives Paul such wisdom and who instructs him not just for this life, but for eternal life!

Sometimes the school of life has hard lessons for us to learn. Time and time again, I have to be reminded that if my week, if my study, if my zeal does not begin with Christ, then it is all in vain. I have to remind myself to carve out time, each and every day, to first sit and Jesus’ feet and be filled with his love and his wisdom so that I have something to pour out to you. Other hard lessons that the school of life may teach are that my health, my wealth, my relationships – whatever it is I reassure myself with – are nothing compared to the sufficiency of Christ. Because no matter what you try to fill your life with, there will always be a feeling of emptiness, a deep void, if you do not first have Christ.

That’s the sobering and yet very reassuring truth of the matter. I have nothing – nothing of my own to offer God. That’s what we talked about last week when Isaiah found himself in the heavenly throne room of God Almighty. And as the voices of the angels boomed and the room began to fill with smoke, he cried out, “Woe to me. I am ruined!” (Is 6). Here too, we see that all the things we would like to rely on – for Paul it might have been his credentials, for me perhaps my time in study, for you maybe something else – whatever it is, it is all for naught if we do not start with Christ. Like Paul, we may pray earnestly that God improve out condition, and how does he respond? What did he say to Paul? Not, “you have enough to get by,” but “I’ve already given you everything.” “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). “My grace fully covers this need of yours. In fact, you can see how complete my power is in the moments when you are weak.”

I can’t help but think of a video I saw for a product called “Line-X”. The product is a spray on coating that is designed to make anything indestructible. The video I saw, was a demonstration of just how well the product worked. Without even seeing the video yourselves, how do you think they demonstrated the performance of this product – to make things indestructible? Do you think they coated strong things like bowling balls and heavy-duty construction equipment? No. Of course not. Rather, they sprayed the coating on weak and fragile things like eggs, watermelons, and red solo cups and then dropped them, stepped on them, or hit them with a baseball bat to show how indestructible these weak things had now become. So, by the end of that video, your conclusion is not, “Wow, that’s a strong watermelon.” But, “Wow, that spray is really indestructible.”

Life is a lot like that video. Sometimes it drops you. Sometimes it walks all over you. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been hit with a baseball bat – and you are the egg. Don’t go it alone fragile eggs. Although you may like to think that you have a tough shell – I’m a guy, I completely get the need to feel tough, and strong, like I can do anything – yet this world is too much for you to handle on your own. Your shell which seems so tough and indestructible is nothing compared to what the world and Satan can torment you with. On your own, your shell will crack. It will break. You will be crushed. On your own, you don’t stand a chance. But covered with Christ – that indestructible coating. You can survive. You can endure. There is nothing in this world more powerful, more complete, more sufficient than covering yourself with Christ. Only with him can you survive the weaknesses, the insults, the hardships, the persecutions and difficulties. More than that, because of your weaknesses, your whole life will be a testament to God’s power. Therefore, you too can “boast all the more gladly about your weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon you” (2 Cor 12:9) – may cover you. “For when I am weak,” then he is shown to be strong. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

So, was this the best sermon you ever heard? My prayer is only that you heard Christ. My prayer is that Christ would cover over my shortcomings of this week and let his power shine. Because I know that my words and my wisdom are nothing compared to his. It is only his word that can actually bring about a change in your heart and strengthen the faith that he put there in the first place.

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God’s Power is Awesome (February 10, 2019)

February 15, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Power is Awesome

Isaiah 6:1-8

It could only be described as an assault on all five senses. If you’ve ever been to a demolition derby or a drag race, you get an idea of what I’m talking about. The thundering engines through the straight pipe exhaust can be felt, not just heard. The flames shooting out of the exhaust, and the pyrotechnic displays are meant to dazzle and wow the eyes. Then there’s the smoke, smoke from blown engines and smoke from squealing tires. It’s a dense cloud that can not only be seen, but you can smell it and even taste it. And through it all, your face is being peppered with bits of dirt, road grit, or tire rubber. And this is fun! Many people who love cars, racing, speed, or things that go boom go to these kinds of events to enjoy themselves.

This is perhaps the closest thing I could compare to the intense sights, sounds, smells, and heart-pounding adrenalin that Isaiah must have experienced when he was taken in the spirit to see God’s throne room. Only, this display was not for entertainment value. This display was meant to show that he was way up here and you, well, you aren’t even supposed to be here. All this power, all this might, all this glory, would stop the heart and drive the life out of anyone who is unworthy.

This kind of display had been seen before. … In part. It was seen when the Tabernacle was finished. When Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard, finishing the work, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:33-35).  It was seen again when Solomon’s temple was dedicated. The ark of the covenant was brought into the inner sanctuary of the temple and placed beneath the wings of statues of cherubim. All the priests there had already consecrated themselves for this occasion. And hundreds of these priests joined in unison – harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets – and they sang “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chr 5:13). “Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God” (2 Chr 5:13-14). In both instances the priests had to flee before God’s presence and could no longer do any work. This display shows both God’s power, and his all sufficiency. Even though his glory was veiled in the dense cloud, the priests still trembled at the sight.

What was it like for Isaiah to stand before this presence? He saw the Lord, “high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Is 6:1). The train of his robe signifying his honor, nobility, dominion and supremacy filled the throne room so that Isaiah barely even had a place to stand. “Above him were seraphim” – that word “seraph” simply means “fiery being” – “each with six wings” – and yet even these majestic, fiery beings humbled themselves in God’s presence – “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying” (Is 6:2).

Then, their voices boomed to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:3). Did you realize that’s the same song we sing right before communion, when the veil is removed, and the elements are about to be consecrate? The place shook! In all my years of choir traveling to various churches and singing with varying sizes of congregations, there have been a few times I can remember when the room began to shake. Although, to be honest, it wasn’t from the hundreds of voices gathered together. The only times I’ve actually felt the room shake was when the organ included a 16’ or even 32’ stop. That’s a pipe that’s 32 feet long! And yet, these fiery beings could shake the doorposts and thresholds with their very voices.

Then, like a magic act you weren’t willing to be a part of, the room was filled with smoke. I can only imagine the panic and desperate fear coursing through Isaiah’s entire being, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Is 6:5). What exactly did he see? He actually doesn’t describe the Lord himself. It sounds impressive, yes, with the description we have recorded. But what was it really like being there, seeing the fiery beings, feeling the foundations of heaven shake as your nostrils are filled with smoke. What was it that caused a righteous and godly man like Isaiah to cry out in terror and fall with his face to the ground? It was God’s holiness. Holiness really just means “set apart”. It was God’s “set apart-ness” – how he is way up here, in regards to his perfection. In fact, the seraphim repeated it 3 times – he is three times holy. Set apart, infinitely separate and above all creation. The divine and eternal Creator, the Lord God is simply unique, without equal, without peer. And Isaiah just gazed upon his glory.

God is separate, perfect in every way, without sin, and powerful. Every human being is far from God. We are imperfect, flawed by sin, and weak. Even all the armies of all times and the frightening power of the artillery shells you’ve probably heard this week, or the power of nuclear energy are small and unworthy of comparison to God. Isaiah knew, as every sinner knows when confronted with the searing honesty of God’s law, that he was by nature sinful. It’s like going from regular, analog TV to 4K HD TV. You know a big change happened when HD TV came out. Suddenly you could see all the little wrinkles on the actors’ faces. Suddenly you could see all the little freckles and blemishes that for decades of TV had gone unnoticed. But now, with HD and 4K TV, there’s no hiding it. You see it all! Every last defect. And that’s what God’s law brings to light – especially when brought face to face with the searing holiness of the lawgiver. Isaiah reached the conclusion that every human must reach: “Woe to me! I am ruined!” God’s almighty power threatens every sinner with eternal separation and punishment.

Isaiah had nothing to offer God that would appease him. He was empty-handed. He had no words to speak that could change the situation. Isaiah’s best was nothing in the presence of God’s absolute holiness and power. Isaiah knew that no one could see God and live (Ex 33:20). Peter reacted much the same way in the Gospel reading (Lk 5:4). Both Isaiah and Peter were “righteous” men in a community sense. They were hardworking and religious. Yet their personal righteousness could not hold up before God. I know I’m no Peter. And I’m no Isaiah. But no matter the comparisons we could do between me and you or any other person on this planet, there’s only one whom we are to compare ourselves to. God himself says, “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). No trains that fill this sanctuary here. No dazzling glory from which people shield their faces here. And I know why. I’m sinful. It is impossible for any sinner to stand in the presence of the holy God unless the Lord removes his sin.

The seraph used two words to describe our sinfulness: “guilt” and “sin.” These two words, although they appear fairly synonymous, actually cover two aspects of sinfulness that even the most righteous would be convicted of. The first, “guilt,” is the natural bent toward evil. The wickedness and evil of our sinful condition before sin is even acted out. Thus, the Psalmist writes, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). Ever since I was conceived I have that natural inclination, that natural bent toward evil. Then the word, “sin.” Yes, it’s a general word in English, but the Hebrew word used has the idea of archery in mind. An archer, though he tries, cannot hit the bullseye every time. That unintentional, “missing the mark” is the idea of this word for sin. We try, but we mess up. Both words would describe a man like Isaiah, who otherwise led an outwardly upright, godly life. Nevertheless, in the glare of God’s law, in the throne room of his holiness, man’s righteousness can only leave him terror-stricken. He needs the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness. “Woe to me, I am ruined.”

Immediately, however, help comes for Isaiah from the altar of God’s grace. No human hand could reach out to a holy God. The difference between sin and holiness is too great for human effort. God must reach across the difference between his own holiness and human sin. The Lord sent one of the seraphs and by word and action dissolved the great separation. “One of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Is 6:6-7). God gives sinners just the cleansing they need. Here, a coal from God’s altar burning so intensely that a fiery being had to use tongs to grab it, yet in this touch to his lips God extended his mercy and grace – burning away only his guilt and sin, while leaving Isaiah unharmed. Later, it would be the intense agony of the cross and crushing anguish of God’s wrath – yet in this moment too, God extends his mercy and grace, crushing your guilt and sin while leaving you unharmed. Your guilt is gone forever, and all new infractions covered with more grace. “Where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more” (Ro 5:20)

 Note, that up until this point, Isaiah has not done a thing except cry out in anguish at his sinfulness. This is all we can offer in our sinfulness as well. A cry for help. A plea for mercy. Yet that is all God wants – a heart empty that he can fill with his love. “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:16-17).

 This “all-around cleansing” hot coal of the gospel from God’s altar would rightly make Isaiah a saint in God’s eyes. Isaiah could now stand in God’s presence and get a glimpse of his glory through the cloud of smoke. This same ember of God’s cleansing promise would also keep Isaiah faithful for 45 years of difficult prophetic work. In fact, not only would it sustain him for his work, it set his heart afire with the love of an eager volunteer.

If you thought the voice of the seraphs was terrifying as it shook the foundations of heaven itself, I can only imagine what the voice of the Lord himself would sound like! Except, Isaiah didn’t have to fear. Nor do you have to fear. “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Is 6:7). God’s power is awesomely terrifying for sinners, but it’s also awesomely comforting for saints who have been cleansed by God. With this newfound confidence and fire burning in Isaiah’s heart, when he hears the Lord’s call “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” he eagerly responds, “Here am I. Send me!” (Is 6:8).

What was so awesomely terrifying for Isaiah to behold became so awesomely powerful in his call to serve. I know who goes before me. I know who stands behind. The God of awesome power is always by my side. Therefore, whom shall I fear? Kings whose dominion is bordered and whose authority has limits? My God’s train fills heaven and he is three times holy – set apart, above and beyond all rulers and powers. Shall I fear false prophets who state their lies and then try to make them truth with their many words? My God speaks a simple word – “See this has touched your lips,” “it is finished” – and it IS so, because his word is truth.

Brothers and sisters, this is your awesome God. He stands beside you with his word of atonement. He goes before you in the word of hope on your lips. Are you prepared? Are you ready to stand in awe at the work he does through you? “Whom shall I send. And who will go for us?” “Here am I, send me!”

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The Word Stands (February 3, 2019)

February 15, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

The Word Stands

Luke 4:20-32

Heads or tails? It’s a game we’ve all played. It’s something we’ve maybe used to decide trivial matters of who goes first or who has to clean up. It’s also a game in which the value of the heads side or the tails side is completely different depending upon which side you stand. If you are going for heads, that side of the coin is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in that moment. Yet, if you are going for tails, gazing upon the face of that man when the coin finally comes to rest can bring about misery and despair. And your feelings for each side can change completely from game to game.

The Word of God has sometimes been described as a two-sided coin. Not in the fact that it’s a trivial way to solve problems and make decisions, not at all. But it’s been described as a two-sided coin in the fact that how you perceive it, is often determined by which side you stand upon.

You can see this played out quite vividly among the congregation of Nazareth. Jesus had just read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19). The eyes of everyone were fastened on him as he began by saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). And then Jesus went on with his sermon to explain what that meant. He explained the good news that God proclaims to the poor. He talked about freedom for the prisoners and the beautiful things that the blind could now see! He poured out the Lord’s favor upon the people. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Lk 4:22). Gracious words, in the sense that they were beautiful and delightful to listen to. Yet, most certainly gracious also in the sense of God’s love being poured out upon his people. How God graciously brought the remnant of Israel back from Babylon and reestablished them in their own land – the Promised Land. And gracious in the sense that now, as Jesus spoke, these words are fulfilled in their hearing

… wait… is he implying what it sounds like he is implying? Yes, the words of freedom, and sight, and the Lord’s favor are wonderful to hear. But Jesus just said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me” (Lk 4:18). Is he saying that he is the anointed one? The Messiah? They asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Lk 4:22). And just like that, what sounded so good, so gracious, turned into the most infuriating thing a Jewish man could ever say. Blasphemy! He’s claiming to be the Messiah! The words didn’t change! Only which side they stood upon.

That’s the interesting thing about God’s Word. It really has a twofold purpose – that’s why it is sometimes called a double-edged sword. One purpose of the Word is to cut to the heart and point out the sins that are hidden and private. The other purpose of the Word is to drive you to your Savior who has removed all sin and guilt. And really, like the two sides of a coin, it depends upon which side you stand that determines how you are going to take the word.

The people of Nazareth, for instance, had made their minds up already. The Messiah was to be a great political leader who would throw off Roman oppression just as God had done in the days of Babylonian oppression. The Messiah would come with many great signs and wonders so that there would be no mistaking who he is. But this… this is just Joseph’s son. We’ve known him since he was a boy. There’s nothing special about him. He’s no better than any one of us. Their eyes saw what they saw. Their mind was made up. Their hearts choose not to accept his Word, and they take their stand against him.

But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. He continues by preaching the law to them. And there’s something we need to clear up before we continue. The law is not bad. The purpose of the law is not to drive us away from God. But that’s often our impression, isn’t it? Anything that points out my wrongs is harsh, cruel, and bad. With that impression, Jesus’ next words sound very cruel… like rubbing their faces in the dirt. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time… when there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath… And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4:24-27). Ok Jesus, we get it. When God get’s mad he takes things away and drives us away from him.

If that’s what you get out of the law – if you see it as this harsh and cruel condemnation which only seeks to rub our faces in our own sin, then you’ve got it all wrong. Jesus wasn’t rubbing their faces in it. He was cutting to the heart of the matter, pointing out the sinful tendency in Israel’s heart and pleading with them not to repeat it. This happens again and again, Israel. God sends his Word to you in the mouths of his prophets. You know about Elijah. You know about Elisha. Powerful prophets of God whom you hold in high regard and cherish the Word that God gives through them. But look how your people rejected them at the time! That sin is still in your hearts. You are at risk of doing it once again. Stop this! Repent! And God will take you back, and gather you together under his wings. The proclamation of God’s law is an act of love to open your eyes and free you from the sins that oppress you!

They wouldn’t hear it. “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (Lk 4:28-29). Oh how our own sinfulness writhes under the knife of God’s law which seeks only to remove the tumor of sin from within us. God, I’m ok when you point out sin out there. I’m ok when you point out this person’s sin, and that person’s sin, and that person’s sin. I’m glad I’m on the same side as you. Look! We even bear the same name! I’m called a Christian! But when the coin is flipped, and the knife of God’s law is turned on us, how we writhe and scream. How we deny and hate the law of God! God, are you implying that I have no power to overcome my sinful oppression? Are you implying that although I read and meditate upon your Word I’m still blind to your love? Are you saying that I, a faithful Christian, am still poor in spirit? Poor in living my life dedicated to you? Well you’ve got the wrong guy! I know who I am. I know the things I do.

And yet, here I am. Only loving my wife when I am well-rested, and when I feel like it. Here I am, with a sinful sense of pride driving the work I do, only doing certain things because a love the recognition I receive for them. Here I am, a set-in-my-ways know-it-all who won’t be bothered with words of criticism or help. In fact, I may even have to just put you back in your place. And now that I’ve said all this, now that I’ve actually let the Word of God sink in and speak to me rather than just letting it ricochet off my stubborn shell, now I see that God’s law is good! Now I see that its intention is to help me. Now, my delight is in the law of the Lord, and I meditate on it day and night (Ps 1)! Because it empties me of myself. Peels back the layers of pride, stubbornness, and excuses. It shows me my need for a Savior before it’s too late! Before he cannot be found. Now I see that by this law, under which I once recoiled, God removes the infection of sin which had me enslaved. I see that God has been holding out his arms for me all along, begging me to stop shaking my fist at him.

Thankfully, Jesus has dealt with opposition. He has dealt with rejection before. The people of Nazareth wanted to throw him off a cliff, but he walked right through the crowd. He would not let opposition prevent him from bringing the good news to many more. Jesus has dealt with opposition in your own heart as well. There was a time when the sinful nature in every one of us tried to push Jesus out of the sacred places of our hearts and throw him out. But he persisted, holding out his hands all day long for you. Maybe that all changed when you were very young when water used with this same unbending Word flooded your heart as it poured over your head, drowning that stubborn sinful nature and filling you with God’s love. Maybe it all changed not too long ago, when God working through the word finally reached and spoke to a heart that was once shrouded in layers of hard, stubborn unbelief.

It doesn’t matter when it happened, but that it happened. Because at that same moment, finally standing on the right side with God, now you can see that every one of his Words stands for your good. As that New Life thrives and is nourished by the Word, you see the law clearly as it is meant – to bring you back to the Savior. And you delight in the Gospel with unfettered joy, because there is no reason for it to be showered upon you so generously – only because of God’s love. Only because he was patient with you, persistent with you, and welcomed you in by his Word – his gracious, unchanging Word which stands in opposition to sin, and creates new life within.

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Worshiping with Jesus (January 27, 2019)

January 28, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Worshiping with Jesus

Luke 4:14-21

What was it like that day? There was excitement buzzing in the air that morning before worship. Everyone had heard, and everyone was talking about it. A son of the congregation, who had gone away to school and been preaching elsewhere, was finally coming home to preach in our church! His home congregation. I’m not sure if you’ve experienced that here. Maybe one of the vicars, perhaps, who was from Texas and came back to do a round of preaching. I’ve been on the other side of that. I’ve had the privilege of preaching at a congregation I had been a part of, and it’s exciting! It’s moving! There’s excitement, there’s congregational pride, and there’s joy!

That’s what was going on that day in Nazareth. News about him spread quickly through the whole countryside. He was teaching in synagogues. He’s on his way home. He’ll be here soon! And yet, what was happening that day was even more than we have ever experienced. His fame preceded him into Nazareth. People had heard about his unique baptism. They heard about the miracles he was performing. And his preaching… Oh, we can’t wait to hear him preach! We’ve all heard how he preaches with such authority, and such wisdom! That’s our Jesus!

No matter where he went, he was always at the synagogue on the Sabbath. And, as is customary, we give this visiting rabbi the honor of reading the Scripture lesson and explaining it to us. But first, a Psalm is sung. “Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.” Then prayers are spoken. And finally, we get to the part that everyone was waiting for…

It’s really neat to see that the worship service of early Christians have many of the same elements that our worship services have. It’s done purposefully. There are parts of the worship service that connect us with a long heritage of believers. Prayers, those have been spoken by God’s people since the beginning – since the “time people began to call on the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26). And Psalms, they were regularly used at the time of the Temple. We typically think of David when we hear of the Psalms, but some even go back farther! Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses. Reading the Bible and expounding upon it, that’s something we do every service. It was customary at the time of Jesus. Even going back to the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, when Israel was just returning from the Babylonian captivity, they found the Book of the Law – their Bible – and after decades of not having direct access to such a treasure they immediately read it from daybreak till noon before the whole assembly of Israelites, and explained it to the people (Neh 8).

But what makes worship truly special? Is it the heritage which binds us to believers throughout all history? Is it the songs we sing – the ones that move us or uplift us? Is it the prayers spoken for one another and the Church itself? Is it even the fact that there’s a special guest about to stand up and read? All of those things would mean nothing, unless the Savior was there.

Look through your bulletin at the service. Think about the things that take place here. Words are spoken confessing wrongs and hearing forgiveness. More words are spoken from an old book. Sometimes there is bread and wine. Sometimes there is water sprinkled three times. What is all of this? Why do we do it? If all you hear are words from long ago and the things which you can taste and touch and see, then you need to take a second look. In all of these things, the Savior comes to you. He comes to you with a word of forgiveness. He comes to you in the story of his love. He comes to you with body and blood under the bread and wine. He comes to you with a cleansing flood in the waters of baptism. If you don’t see this, then you need to take a second look. Just like the Nazarenes needed to take a second look at Jesus. Yes, he was there with them physically, but at that time most in Nazareth saw Jesus as merely a son of the congregation. Sure, a great rabbi, but nothing more. That’s because Jesus hadn’t yet revealed who he truly was – the fullness of who he was. Not yet at least.

To realize that it is not just Jesus, but the Savior who’s here with us – who speaks through his Word, and who, from the perspective of the Nazarenes, was speaking the Word to you – you need only hear the gospel!

As Jesus stood up to read, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He began to unroll it and scroll through until he found the place he was looking for: Isaiah chapter 61. Then he read. What was that like? What was the tone of his voice? How does it sound when one speaks with authority, and yet, gentleness and compassion? What does it sound like when the Ancient of Days enters the church and speaks that day? “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19).

Oh, maybe that was one of your favorite verses as an Israelite! First spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah during the time when the Israelites were under the captivity and oppression of the Babylonians. And we know what God did! Isaiah proclaimed good news to the poor, and God brought about that good news. Isaiah proclaimed freedom for the prisoners, and God rescued them and made them free! It was like the year of Jubilee – the year of the Lord’s favor. That’s when, every 50 years the Israelites would observe a year of Jubilee. In this year all slaves were to be set free, all debts were to be cancelled, land and property which was sold was returned to the original owner. And the Israelites were looking for that same intervention by God in their present day. This time, in Jesus’ day, it wasn’t the Babylonian captivity, but the Roman oppression. And the Messiah, the anointed one was going to come and throw off that oppression. Once again, he would proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind! He would set the oppressed free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And here’s the real heart of the gospel: After Jesus read those words, rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant. After he sat down in the seat at the front of the synagogue – they sat down to preach in those days – Jesus said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). In other words, what the Nazarenes just heard Jesus say – little Jesus who you watched grow up, who maybe played with your children not long ago, Jesus who was now grown up and a rabbi, but still perhaps quite young and green – he just said, “I am he.”

“I am the one whom the Lord has anointed. I am the Messiah that you’ve been waiting for. I am the one who proclaims good news to the poor, and freedom for the prisoners. I am the one who will set the oppressed free and usher in the year of Jubilee – when all your debts are canceled, when slaves are released, and your inheritance is returned to you. I, Jesus, am he.”

If you were a Nazarene sitting in the synagogue that Sabbath, eagerly waiting to hear Jesus speak, is that the direction you would have expected him to go? Unfortunately, I have to save that for next Sunday, when we talk about the reaction of those in Nazareth. But what about you here today? You, who know Jesus as the Savior born in the flesh whom Magi visited with gifts. You, who know Jesus as God’s Son, the holy one whom God the Father voiced his approval of when he was baptized. And now you, sitting here in church, hearing the words of this Savior recorded for all time, is this what you would have expected?

We’ve been talking about the Nazarene perspective, let’s back up and take a look from our perspective. What did we start the service with? The confession of sins where we stated the hard truth about ourselves, “I confess that I am by nature dead in sin…. You should cast me away from your presence forever.” It’s hard to say. We use these words often, but when you look at them anew, Lord, you should cast me away. I’m not holy. I’m not worthy. Nothing good lives in me. Although more than anything I want to be with you, I know that because I am a spiritually poor, miserable sinner, I can’t. Lord, cast me away. Why do we often say, not in this service but in the other 3 services we typically use, “Lord have mercy on us?” It’s because I know where I stand with God. I am spiritually poor – robbed of the image of God that he originally created Adam with. A prisoner to my sins – they hold me in their practice and enslave me with guilt. Blind to the good that God wants me to know and to have. “I am dead… you should cast me away.”

But what does Jesus say to you? Does he treat you as you deserve or does he do something completely unexpected? Although these are words recorded and written on a page, Jesus still today speaks through them today, and works through them. “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Mt 18:20). He’s not just there in Nazareth on that day, he’s here today speaking to you, poor in spirit! He’s not just in the words of Isaiah speaking to an oppressed nation, he’s here today speaking to you, prisoner of sin. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me” – chosen me, designated me – “to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19).

Worshiping with Jesus means that he gives you the unexpected! We confess our sins and admit the hard truth that we have no business being in God’s presence, and yet here he is! He comes to you. “Hear the word of Christ through his called servant:” That means, although the words are coming from my mouth, they are Jesus’ words for you, “I forgive you all your sins”! And then right after that, what did we sing? Not, “Let us flee from God,” but “Come! Come, let us sing to the Lord! Come, let us worship and bow down! For he is our God, and we are his people.” The people whom he has released from sin. The people whom he has restored our sight to see the good things God has given us. The people who are made rich because of the grace of God!

What was it like, when once every 50 years it was declared a year of Jubilee? I can’t imagine the joy as debts were canceled, families were brought back together, and inheritances were returned. But you, you have something better! For you, living after the death and resurrection of Jesus, your debts are canceled too! Not physical debt you may have on a house, or a car, or whatever else, but your debt of sin is canceled. That mountain of sin, no matter how serious or how numerous, is just gone. Cancelled. Just like that. You know the words that Jesus spoke on the cross? “It is finished.” Tetelestai, is the Greek word recorded there. Interestingly enough, it’s the same Greek word that was stamped on a bill of sale when it had been paid in full. Families were brought back together. Yes, we look forward to the day when we will see grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, brother, sister, son or daughter in heaven once again – to be reunited. But in the joy of that, don’t lose sight of the more important relationship that is already restored. That is, between you and your heavenly Father. He welcomes you every day with open arms, like the father of the prodigal son ran up to embrace his wayward son. And your inheritance is returned! God said to Adam and Eve, all this I give to you. We await the day when we will look upon the new heavens and new earth with God and he will once again say, all this I give to you, just as I have given my Son. And you don’t have to wait 50 years for this to happen. For you, it happens every day. Every time you open the Scriptures, you are worshiping with Jesus. And the message he has for you, is that of the Lord’s favor.

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Talk to Me (January 20, 2019)

January 23, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Talk to Me

Ephesians 3:14-21

Who is your God? If you could pick an illustration that would describe who he is, what would you choose? Would you choose a world champion strongman who can perform amazing feats of strength and power? Would you choose a top of his field scientist who knows every nuanced detail of his field of study? Would you choose a psychologist who understands how the mind works, and how emotions play into our feelings and actions, or, did you have something else in mind?

As I went through the list – and there are other illustrations I could have given – you may have been thinking to yourself, isn’t he all of those? In the first reading from Exodus 7 we see him perform incredible feats of power like a strongman. And although just the beginning of the full account, you perhaps recall all of the 10 plagues that God sent upon Egypt to display his power over every false god. But brute power would not be enough. So, God is also like a top scientist in that he knows every detail about every aspect of his creation – even things that scientists haven’t yet discovered. Yet, even that wouldn’t be enough. So, God is also like a psychologist who understands how you feel, and how you may react or perceive certain things. Isn’t God, all those things rolled up into one, and yet, so much more than all those things?

The example that Paul uses in this section of his letter to the Ephesians, is that of a father. Yet even in this regard, we really only have a flawed view of what a father is. As we grow up, we learn that our fathers – although we may look up to them – really can’t do everything and really can’t beat everyone else’s dad in an arm wrestling contest. We learn that our fathers may have certain flaws or weaknesses. So, to understand this, you really have to think of a father through the eyes of a toddler. Some of you know by experience but let me paint the picture for you. You wake up on a Saturday morning, sleepily walk down the stairs, and dad is there, already awake, and already busy making one of his specialty weekend breakfasts! When breakfast is ready, he carries you upstairs to get your younger brother out of the crib. Then back down the stairs he walks with ease, powerfully carrying your brother in his left arm, and you in his right arm. The whole family enjoys breakfast together, and then the playing begins! As you play, dad explains exactly how the train burns coal to make the wheels roll and smoke come out the top of the steam engine. But then it breaks! No problem, dad can fix it. He takes out his tools and gets to work, but not before he takes some time to make the sadness go away. It’s a long and fun day with dad. When you finally go to sleep, he’s there to tuck you in and give you a goodnight kiss. You peacefully drift off to sleep because you know he will be there when you wake up.

It’s with this picture in mind that Paul says just a little earlier in verse 12, “In Christ and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Eph 3:12). Paul also probably had in mind the many times that Jesus prayed. When we read the gospels, it is touching to notice the confidence which Jesus rested in his Father. And, because by grace he had the same Father, Paul could use the same free, easy, and confident approach to the Father that Jesus used. “For this reason, I kneel before the Father” (Eph 3:13), “with freedom and confidence” (Eph 3:12), because you are the perfect Father, the complete embodiment of all fatherly qualities, the prototype of fatherhood. That’s exactly how God wants us to approach him. “Talk to me” he says. “I am your heavenly Father. You can approach me any time, with any need, and in full confidence that I will give you what you need.”

So, you have his ear – the ear of your perfect heavenly Father. What will you pray for? Anything! The Bible says pray to God about anything and everything! “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Php 4:6). But I want to get a little more specific than that. Although we can and should pray about everything, there are certain things we often forget to pray about – or simply don’t even know to pray about. And for that reason, it’s good to look at the prayers of others. We do that when we pray the Lord’s prayer every Sunday. It’s easy to think about and pray for material blessings, but what about spiritual blessings? Out of the 7 petitions in the Lord’s prayer only one of them is for material blessings. The other 6 are for spiritual blessings that we may forget to pray about. Here too, in verses 16 through 19, Paul prays for two things. He prays that the Father would strengthen your inner being. And he prays that you would be able to fully grasp the love of Christ.

Let’s talk about those. As he proceeds to mention what it is he wants the Father to do, Paul mentions another reason for being confident of being heard: “The riches of his glory” (Eph 3:16). It’s translated “his glorious riches” in the NIV, but the focus is on his glory and the vast wealth of it. Our Father’s glory lies in his grace. And his grace does not come in little driblets, a little here and a little there – maybe just enough to get you by. No, there’s a wealth of God’s grace, an overflowing flood to completely cover and drown all your sinfulness and all your needs.

To get an idea of what that’s like, you have to stand on top of a dam. My family likes to go hiking at the base of Stillhouse Hollow Dam. On our way to the park, you get the twofold picture of this richness of glory. Driving over the top of the dam, on the one side, you have to reservoir which is filled with water and stretching far beyond what your eyes can see. And deep! I wish I could see the reservoir empty just to get an idea of how deep. But I know it’s deep. And yet peaceful on this side. Then you drive down to the bottom of the dam on the spillway side. And as you get out of the car, you hear the thunderous roar of the spillway. When you walk closer you see the water gushing out of the spillway and rushing down the turbulent river, churning as it goes. Then you realize just what kind of power is behind the vastness of the reservoir on the other side. The same applies to the riches of God’s glory. Powerful as it acts within us, pushing out the sinful nature while creating the inner being, yet peaceful as it strengthens with the vast depth of grace. And that is to the glory of God. His glory lies in the fact that he graciously forgives sins, creates faith in your heart and strengthens your “inner being” (Eph 3:16). The “inner being” is what Paul will later call the “new man” (Eph 4:24).

Then, being rooted and grounded in love” Paul continues his prayer, “I pray that you would be able to comprehend… how wide and long and high and deep his love is” (Eph 3:17-18). So, Paul is building his prayer. From the riches of his glory God has strengthened you by connecting you to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Now, sinking your roots into Christ – being rooted and grounded in the love of Christ – I pray that God would show you how wide and long and high and deep his love is.

Here’s where I think every one of us could use some strengthening. We don’t grasp the vastness of God’s love. We don’t comprehend the extremes of what his love is able to do. And here’s the really hard part – we don’t want to find out. We are scared to find out. Let me explain what I mean. Your car has airbags. These airbags are designed to minimize injury in the case of an accident. But how many of you have seen your car’s airbags or had to make use of them? You’ve probably seen it noted on a list of safety features, maybe even seen videos of airbags deploy in crash tests, but you probably have not seen the airbags in your current vehicle. You trust that they are there, and hope they do their job should you need them. But you don’t want to have to put them to the test. That would mean that you are in a dangerous situation. The same can be true about the ways in which God helps you comprehend his love. You know it’s there but may not know just what it’s capable of. He may need to take you to the depths so that you can experience for yourself that his love still holds you even at this new low. He may take you through extended hardship so that you know for certain that God’s love will never grow weary or faint even if you do. The fact is, to really know God’s love, he may take you to the extreme and back again so that you understand the riches of his glory, and learn to trust his love.

But he doesn’t always do it that way. Other times he may take you to new heights or broaden out his love in other ways. Those at the wedding in Cana got a small glimpse of God’s love when Jesus changed water into wine – the first of many miracles by which God would display his power, might, care, and concern for the people – broadening and elevating his love to new levels. In all these ways, God slowly and carefully broadens and deepens our understanding of what his love is capable of. And so just like a tree with strong roots can weather the strongest storms because of what it’s anchored to, God wants to show you that you too can weather the strongest storms of life when your roots are strong in him. And just as a tree with deep roots can endure through long droughts by tapping into deep reserves of groundwater, God wants to show you that he will preserve you through life’s droughts because you are tapped into the water of his love.

Here’s the outcome, then. When the Spirit makes you strong in the inner being, when Christ dwells in your heart by faith, and when you are rooted and grounded in his love – all things which God does for you – then you will be able to appreciate and rely on the vast dimensions of Christ’s love. And just when you think you have reached the limit, just when you think you have been to the extremes of God’s love and been brought back safely, unharmed, praising God for carrying you through that fierce endeavor, God your Father says to you, “I can do more!”

[He] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). More than all we ask, I get that. But just think about what it means that God can do more than we can even imagine! Keep that in mind as you pray bold prayers. God encourages you to come to him, just like you would come to a perfectly loving father. Present your requests to him freely and confidently, knowing that he will listen. And as you pray, “your will be done” – or whatever variation of that phrase you may use – this is where you are to remember that God may have something in mind for you that you can’t even imagine. And it’s all for the good of his children! Paul had dared to ask for much, even that the Ephesians might be filled with the very best that God has to give. Was he asking too much? Do we ask too much when we pray for the best that God has to give? “Not by any means,” your Father replies. “Talk to me. I will listen. I can do more!”

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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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