Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Victory Over Despair (April 26, 2020)

April 26, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory Over Despair

Luke 24:13-35

https://youtu.be/jvUClqocH0k

 

Do you feel overwhelmed? Easy to understand if you do there’s a lot going on. Schedules have changed. Demands have changed. The demands on our time has changed. The demands on our emotions. The demands on our relationships all changed and it might overwhelm you.

In Exodus 18, Moses was feeling overwhelmed too. As the Israelites settled into their new reality, problems started happening and people went to Moses to fix them. He was a fixer. But more people came to Moses and more people and more people, and more than he expected. Until his father-in-law, Jethro, came and said “Moses, what are you doing? You are wearing yourself out. You can’t do all of this.” And Moses probably knew that. He probably knew that he was trying to do more than he had previously done successfully. So why didn’t he stop? Why didn’t he ask for help?

Maybe for the same reason we are hesitant, too, as new things keep coming into our lives. Because we are worried about what it will say about us. Like what does it mean if you can’t do your job well from home? And also keep and maintain a home? And also be there emotionally for everybody in your home? What does it say about you if you don’t work as well in this location as you did in the previous location? What does it say about you if your emotions are getting more stretched and if you can’t handle everyone else’s up and down emotions as well as you previously did? What does it mean if you can’t help your kid with their schoolwork as well as you should be able to – or teach them? What does it mean if you can’t handle being unemployed, or having less money? What does it say about you?

Same thing that it may have said about Moses. That he had a limit. That we have limits. There’s only so much we can do. And it’s unrealistic of ourselves to think otherwise. Sometimes we are trying to do too much. Sometimes we need outside help. Sometimes we need a different perspective on all that’s going on. A realistic perspective. A perspective that puts everything back into place.

It’s what the disciples were all going through as well. Quite suddenly everything was different. Just days ago they were traveling freely and talking with Jesus, their Lord and teacher. The next moment he’s dead, they are hiding behind locked doors, and nonsensical reports start coming in. Two of them just needed a moment to clear their heads. They got out of Jerusalem and all the chaos that’s been going on. They traveled to their home in Emmaus, not far away, and as they traveled they talked. They talked about their dear friend Jesus. They talked about his arrest and trial. They talked about his sudden death. They talked about his missing body and the nonsensical reports that he was alive again. They talked about everything. And because they felt so strongly about all of it, their talk must have been quite animate – with strong words and big gestures. They asked each other hard, even unanswerable questions as they tried to solve the mystery of what just happened. Trying to fill in the blanks and solve the puzzle. But they failed to find the answer.

A third traveler walking beside them asks what they were discussing – which gives us a nice recap of all that’s going on and the depth of their despair. “What are you discussing together” (Lk 24:17) the third traveler asked. (It was Jesus, but they were kept from recognizing him right away). “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Lk 24:18). Shows you how big this news had gotten already. And also their strong feelings about it. “About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him… And what is more, it is the third day since all of this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us – put us beside ourselves, threw a wrench into all of this. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find the body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb… but they did not see Jesus” (Lk 24:19-24). “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). There are few sadder phrases than that. They had watched. They had waited. Peter went to go investigate. They lingered in Jerusalem for a time, but all this was too much. All this was just leading them to despair. “We had hoped” (Lk 24:21). “They stood still, their faces downcast” (Lk 24:17). Their eyes stared blankly at the ground – their sparkle gone. Their faces sullen, foreheads deeply wrinkled. Heads hung low and shoulders slumped. “We had hoped” (Lk 24:17).

And rather than offering a consoling word, Jesus surprisingly reprimands them! “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). Reprimands them because they had all the answers right in front of them but did not understand. They were looking in the wrong place, believing the wrong things when they had the answers all along – when Jesus told them again and again what was going to happen. “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:26). Cleopas – one of the two traveling disciples – touched on the answer when he said that Jesus was, “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (Lk 24:19), but he failed to understand what Jesus – the mightiest of all prophets, the true redeemer and Savior had to do. So, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).

It’s a reprimand we all need to hear, even in our despair. Not because we are despairing, or overwhelmed. I’m not at all saying that it’s wrong to feel overwhelmed. Quite the opposite. It’s a very normal thing in life. But when you are feeling overwhelmed, when you are despairing, what do you do? Where do you go? If you are despairing and simply going to fumble through your own feelings, if you are overwhelmed and just going to find an escape until things calm down, then you are missing your greatest help. Then you need to hear these words: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). As it did for the disciples on their way to Emmaus – turning sullen, confused, and despairing hearts into “hearts that burned within us” (Lk 24:32) – so turning to God and hearing his word will do for you in times when you are overwhelmed and despairing.

There was one particular year of my schooling that was difficult. I’m not typically one of those “Woe is me, this is terrible” kind of people, so this was actually surprising even to me. But one year was just really a struggle. I was often overwhelmed. I was faced with a number of new and tough decisions. Even struggled to continue down the path of ministry I had chosen, at times. And on those particularly difficult days when I just wanted to throw up my hands and leave town – get away from it all – there’s one phrase I would repeat that helped put everything into perspective. “One thing’s needful.” There’s only one thing that’s important in life. “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rm 4:25). Believing this, I’ve already gained everything I need in life!

The apostle builds on that simple truth and draws application for our lives today in the reading from 1 Peter we read earlier: “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt 1:18-21).

Your faith and hope are in God. How much heartache and paralyzing confusion this would have saved the disciples! How much heartache and confusion this would save us if in every moment of despair, every time we feel overwhelmed, we would turn to God and his Word to carry us through. When despairing under the weight of guilt, turn to the cross where your sins have all been paid for. When overwhelmed by all that’s going on so that you feel you don’t even know which way is up, focus on Christ raised from the dead and first center yourself in him – in your own resurrection on the Last Day through him. When your plans and future hopes are in shambles, understand that the most important thing your future holds cannot be shaken because your faith and hope are in God.

Anchoring yourself in Christ and centering yourself in his Word, then we can begin piecing together and making sense of everything else with a proper perspective in place. Feeling overwhelmed because your children’s school is now your home? So am I. But what a great opportunity to add prayer and Scripture back into the curriculum if it wasn’t already. Patience running thin at times because you don’t have your usual time to escape or decompress? A humbling opportunity for self-assessment and strengthening your character with godliness and grace – practicing forgiveness as we also ask for forgiveness. Despairing over what the future holds in all this uncertainty? Contrast that with the certainty of forgiveness, renewed life, and salvation you have through Christ!

The answer to our despair and feeling overwhelmed is not more – not being more busy to catch up. Often it’s less. Less busyness and more Jesus. “Stay with us” (Lk 24:29), was the plea of the Emmaus disciples. “Stay with us a little longer.”

There’s a hymn that reads like a prayer echoing this plea of “Stay with us, Lord.” And although it’s more of an evening prayer, I think it’s fitting any time of day, so I’ll close with that:

 

Stay with us, Lord, and share the weight Of sorrow, guilt, or pain
That robs our weary hearts of rest-Christ, make us whole again.

Stay with us, Lord, and be the light That shines when day departs,
Whose rays can pierce the starless night And reach the darkest heart.

Stay with us, Lord, till morning comes And, through the silent hours,
Renew in us the strength we need To serve with all our pow’rs. Amen

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Victory Over Skepticism (April 19, 2020)

April 19, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Victory Over Skepticism

Acts 10:34-43

https://youtu.be/CNzVu0DO1aY

 

Why Christianity and not any other religion? How do you know that the Bible is true? Why not the Koran of Islam? Why not the Vedas of Hinduism? Or some other religion’s sacred text? Afterall, don’t all religions tout their own as the one and only?

That’s what we are going to address today as we talk about skepticism. So if you’ve been skeptical of Christianity, this message is for you. And if you are a Christian, but know some skeptical people, this message is for you.

In the marketplace of spiritual ideas there are a lot of infomercials. This religion claims to be the one and only way, yet so does this one. This preacher claims he can cure diseases, that one can give you “your best life now”. This denomination stresses moral integrity, that one social justice. So who are we supposed to believe? All religions make assertions, but how do we know which one, if any, is true?

You can’t just assert things and expect people to believe them to be true. We are far too jaded to accept the assertions of just anyone. We sooo want to believe that eggs won’t ever stick on this new kind of skillet. Yet we learn from our mistakes and become less and less naïve as we grow older. That’s a good thing. Sometimes we can investigate claims by trial and error, but you can’t really do that with religion, can you? As we grow a little wiser, we research the products we buy – what are the reviews of this new skillet? What is it made out of? But what religion is not going to have glowing reviews from its adherents and bad reviews from its enemies? We aren’t buying kitchenware afterall. We are trying to find a way of life, a way of thinking, a path to truth. We need something more than just yelp reviews.

Not all is lost, though. We can test the claims of a religion. We can test the claims of Christianity – not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error. But by careful investigation of its claims. Is Jesus who he says he is? This was certainly a question that the disciples grappled with. You don’t think the disciples were skeptical of Christ? We just read about Thomas forever known as “Doubting.” Peter and the rest could not wrap their heads around the death and resurrection of Christ. They heard but did not always confidently believe. We are not alone in our skepticism. But God provided ample evidence – verifiable evidence – “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

And it all centers around the resurrection of Jesus. So is there good reason to at least believe that the resurrection of Christ is possible? I think so. Especially if we are willing to treat the evidence of the resurrection as we would any historical claim from the same era. Christianity is firmly rooted in history – citing places, people, rulers, and events – it’s easy to investigate the evidence both in the Bible and outside of the Bible. And it would be easy to disprove if it were not true.

So let’s take a look at the evidence, starting with the crucifixion. Did it happen? Well, we have eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. And the descriptions fit the time and place. Yeah, but did Jesus really die when he was crucified? Or was he just unconscious? Well, the Romans knew how to crucify someone to death. They were good at it. And the Roman soldiers there surely knew when a person was dead or just unconscious. They even pierced Jesus through the heart to make sure he was really dead. There’s no good reason to believe that they did not kill Jesus. Especially considering the punishment Roman soldiers faced for not carrying out their duties. And, there’s no good reason to doubt the multiple eyewitness accounts of the crucifixion.

But that’s the easy part. What about Jesus’ resurrection? There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection too! In fact, from the readings today it’s quite clear that God knew we would be skeptical, so he provided an abundance of evidence, and an abundance of witnesses. “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem” Peter said. “They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen” (Acts 10:39-40). And not just by one person. Not even just by the handful of eyewitnesses who recorded their testimony for us. He appeared to Peter and the Twelve – including Thomas. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred other people – most of whom were still living when the apostles were recording their testimony (and could have discredited the sources we have today – if it were not true), and last of all he appeared to the apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:3-8).

And there is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses lied about what they experienced. Yes, it defies the laws of nature learned by human experience – I’ll get to that in a moment. But what did they gain by it? The eyewitnesses didn’t gain anything from Jesus’ resurrection (unless you consider a martyr’s death something to be gained). They didn’t gain money, or power, or prestige. They were even willing to die for this truth, which makes them very credible eyewitnesses. And there is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses were all mentally insane. How could so many people all in one time and place suddenly become insane? And even if that were the case, how credible is it that so many mentally insane people got their stories to match? It just doesn’t make sense.

So, no reason to be skeptical of the resurrection unless, of course, if someone faked it. But only three groups had access to the body of Christ: the Romans, the Jewish enemies of Christ, and the disciples of Christ. The Romans would not fake the resurrection. They were the ones who crucified him. The Jewish enemies of Christ were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. They were even paranoid about a theft of the body and demanded that a guard unit be placed at the tomb. And despite the paranoia of the Jewish leaders, there is no good reason to believe that the disciples of Christ would fake his resurrection. Most of them were too scared to leave closed doors. And most of them displayed their own skepticism to Jesus’ claims of death and resurrection. The only thing to be gained would be punishment and persecution.

We could go on into greater detail, and I hope you continue to investigate these claims if you are still skeptical. But you see, there is no good reason to doubt the death and resurrection of Jesus. And if Jesus really rose from the dead, then that proves his claim that he was true God. It also explains all the miracles he performed and his power and authority over the laws of nature that we observe. If he is God, then we would expect him to be able to do supernatural things – like rise from the dead. And this is the very point I want to get to. Jesus proved he is true God by rising from the dead.

So we aren’t stuck with the circular argument of “How do you know the Bible is true?” “Because it’s God’s Word.” “How do you know that it is God’s Word?” “Because the Bible tells me so.” It’s much more than that. “How do you know the Bible is true?” Because Jesus said it is true – without error. “Why should I believe Jesus?” Because he is God. “How do you know that he is God?” Because he rose from the dead. “Why should I believe he rose from the dead?” Because all the evidence says he did. The tomb was empty. There was no body. No body could be found – not even by very powerful, very connected, and very motivated people. And since all the evidence says he rose, and his resurrection proves that he is indeed divine, then we ought to believe what he says to us in the Bible.

Peter says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). And his judgement is simple. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). Your relationship with Jesus is the sole determining factor in this judgment. Not who you are. Not what you’ve done. Only whether or not you believe that Jesus is the Savior. Doubting and denying who Jesus is means condemnation. And that’s a pretty serious thing to simply sit on the fence and find out about when you die. Don’t just sit there and remain agnostic. Look into the evidence for yourself. Read the Bible and investigate it’s claims your eternity DOES depend upon it. “Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27).

See the great lengths Jesus went to so that there would be no reason for doubts. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27). “These words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn 20:31). “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify… all the prophets testify about him” (Acts 10:42-43) listen to the eyewitnesses, test the claims and weigh the evidence. Stop doubting and believe! Because “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). “By believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Stop doubting and believe so that you may have peace.

Jesus appeared to his disciples in order to prove his resurrection. And notice how he often did it. He ate! It’s so simple. He ate with the two Emmaus disciples (Lk 24:13-35), he ate with the Twelve who were hiding behind locked doors (Lk 24:36-43), and he ate breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21). Peter’s point is that these witnesses did not just imagine Jesus. They saw him, touched him, observed him consume real food. The food was there, he ate, and now it isn’t. We ourselves at the breakfast he prepared! And they listened to him: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Think about it.

Now, you might say, “That’s nice, but I wasn’t there.” True enough. You weren’t there when Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address either, but you believe it happened. Why? Because there are credible eyewitness accounts. You have no reason not to believe it. In fact, if you denied it, you would be thought of as a weird conspiracy theorist. Granted, the resurrection of Christ happened way before the Civil War. And it is more than a presidential speech; it is a supernatural event. Yet, we have eyewitness accounts and documents to back up the resurrection claim. We have more textual evidence of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection than any other event of that era. And the other events aren’t even close. We have more historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than any Roman emperor winning any war or legislating any law. And what’s maybe most surprising is that all the evidence agrees – it all says the same thing with no conflicting details.

God wants you to know about it. God wants all people to know about it. So Christ sent the Spirit to inspire these eyewitnesses and historical investigators like St. Luke to write about it. These documents have been carefully vetted and preserved for you. In one case, Christ even took his own enemy, Saul, kicking and screaming into the faith. He literally knocked Saul down on the road to Damascus and confronted him. He baptized Saul, known to us as Paul, and converted him to Christianity. All this testimony was recorded and spread to Jews and Gentiles across the Mediterranean world, and finally to us centuries later through these Scriptures. And the message is this: Christ died for sinners like you and me, and he rose from the dead victorious over death for us.

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His Resurrection is YOUR Victory (April 12, 2020)

April 12, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Easter Worship – April 12, 2020
His Resurrection is YOUR victory!

1 Corinthians 15:51-57

https://youtu.be/E7CZyE_B4Z0

 

“What a glorious morning! It’s Easter! It’s the ray of sunshine – even if the sun isn’t actually shining – we’ve been looking forward to for such a long time. 6 weeks of Lent can feel like a long time, especially with the sheltering in place and limited time to get out and enjoy many of the things we love. But now, we get a little respite from all that – a little relief. There’s joyous music! Excited greetings of “Christ is risen!” And singing “Alleluia!” What a glorious morning!

It would seem strange to introduce something sad, something scary, something somber into a morning like this, wouldn’t it? Especially when just for a moment we would like to escape from all that’s been going on. But, my friends, that is precisely what we are going to do. Not because we want to be sad or scared. But because we need to understand and appreciate just how sad and scary this “something” is if we are truly going to appreciate what we are celebrating here this morning. Only then will we be filled with the level of joy Easter affords us.

What is this “something” that is so sad and scary? It is the end—the end of breathing, the end of a beating heart, the end of living. It is death. And we all, young and old alike, are facing it. We don’t much like to think about it. It is too sad. It is too scary. But there it is, waiting for us, somewhere in our future.

So, what are we going to do about it? We can, and should, do all we can to take care of our bodies, to keep them as healthy and whole as possible. By doing so we may delay death. We MAY delay death. But there is no guarantee. There are innumerable ways our lives might end other than poor health. And, even if we avoid these other death dealers, eventually our bodies will wear out and the end will come. No, taking care of our bodies is not enough. It will not allow us to avoid the inevitable.

So, what do we do? What can we do? We can listen to the amazing, remarkable, glorious promise God gives us in the verses of the Bible we read earlier from 1 Corinthians 15. “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed… For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52). His promise is that because Jesus was victorious over death, he promises to give his followers victory over death. “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57).

What is it that makes the thought of death so scary? In our text, St. Paul mentions the ‘sting’ of death. What makes death sting? What makes it so scary? If death were merely the end of our existence, if we simply stopped BEING at the moment of death, it might be sad because we would no longer be with our loved ones, it might be disappointing because we would like to live longer, but there would be nothing scary about it. Just maybe an immense finality to it.

The reason death is so scary is that we know that when we die, we will face our Creator. We know there is someone to whom we will give an account. And, our conscience tells us that we have not lived up to his expectations. If we read what he says in the Bible, we will only be more scared because it will show us that we are even further from living up to his expectations than we thought. If it weren’t for sin, death would have no sting at all. What makes the sting of death so potent is God’s law that declares eternal death and torment for every infraction, no matter how minor.

But this is precisely what makes Easter so exciting! Easter changes this! Listen to what St. Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:56-57). Jesus was victorious over sin when he died on the cross. He took all the punishment our sins could dish out. “And now,” Jesus says, “You don’t need to be afraid to die because when you face your Creator, he will welcome you with open arms. Through me your sins are forgiven. There is nothing to be afraid of.” This is why St. Paul wrote, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). Death no longer has any sting! There is no reason to be afraid.

It’s like this. Think of death as a jellyfish. The Australian box jellyfish is considered the most venomous creature in the ocean. It gets its name from the cube-like shape of its bell. As many as 60 tentacles grow from the bell and can reach 10 feet in length. Each tentacle has about 5,000 stinging cells. It moves illusively through the water and its venom contains toxins that attack the heart, nervous system, and skin cells. It is so overpoweringly painful, human victims have been known to go into shock and drown or die of heart failure before even reaching shore. You do NOT want to bump into a box jellyfish.

 Unless, of course, someone had removed every stinger from its tentacles. Without stingers, there would be nothing to fear from a box jellyfish. It would become as dangerous as the stuffed octopus on your child’s bed. There would be no reason to fear this formerly frightening creature.

The same is true of death. “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15:56), and Jesus has removed every single sin. Because of what Jesus has done for us, death has no sting. It is merely another event along the way to the perfect world God says he will one day create for his followers. When we die, our bodies will be placed in the ground while our souls go to be with God. And then, on the day this world ends, listen to what will happen: “the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Cor 15:52, 54).

Did you catch that? Our weak, mortal bodies will be raised back to life. But this time, we will be immortal. “Imperishable”, “immortal,” “incorruptible” – our words can’t even capture the entire thought in one word. We will never again die. In fact, the Bible says that we will never again be weak or injured or sick. Our glorified bodies cannot perish, no matter what force is brought against it. Cannot die from any disease or age, and cannot rot with gangrene or the grave. Our eternal bodies will be indestructible! We will live in a perfect, glorious, sinless and sick-less new world.

And I’ll add one more incredible detail to all of this. God puts all his promises in writing so that we may have a legal document to fully assure us of our salvation. God has promised it. And God has kept every one of his promises so far. Like any legal document, thought, it’s only as good as the power behind it. So what’s the power behind the document of the Bible? Christ’s resurrection is the power behind his Word – his promises. His proven resurrection is the power behind this promise that says every believer in Jesus is free from sin’s curse and guaranteed eternal life. God documented it. Signed it in his blood. And delivered on it with his own resurrection guaranteeing that no one can take his gift of victory over your own death away from you.

What is the best possible victory that I could have shared with you this morning? A political victory? An athletic victory? A victory over a disease? All would be wonderful. All might make us smile and celebrate. But none of these would last. None of these would matter to us in the end. But the victory God has told us about, the victory Jesus won for us when he walked out of that tomb, the victory he will give us one day when he raises us from the dead to eternal life – that victory will last forever and ever.

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Shadows of the Cross: the Passover Lamb (April 9, 2020)

April 9, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Shadows of the Cross: the Passover Lamb

Exodus 12:1-14

https://youtu.be/QZyqWlXl3xw

 

We were gathered around the dinner table in a dimly lit room discussing the strange events that had taken place recently. There was separation between us and them, and increasingly so. Tonight, we weren’t even allowed to leave the house. When we asked why, father said something about a plague – a plague that brought death. The room seemed tense. A bit uneasy. Nothing like this had ever happened before. We sat quietly, yet anxious as we ate our food. Our bags were packed. Our sandals were on our feet. Father had his staff. They said we were leaving tonight. After the busyness of the day, there was a quiet stillness as we all sat around the table, secluded to our own house.

There was a lot leading up to tonight. Over the past few days we had been quickly packing our belongings – only what we could travel with. Dad went out and chose a year-old lamb – set it apart from the rest. It was a beautiful lamb – pure and spotless. The best in our flock. We helped take care of it for four days. Even got a little attached to it. When dad said we had to slaughter him tonight, we were all a bit sad. I even cried a bit. Now we are gathered together, each family in their own home. Waiting… watching… listening. The lamb’s blood painted on our doorframes. How do we know when it’s time? When will this be over? “We will know,” Father said. We will know.

 

It was that same Passover meal that Jesus now celebrated with his disciples. There they were, gathered around the table – Jesus with his disciples. They ate the lamb roasted over the fire, and the bitter herbs. There was the unleavened bread – reminders of when the Israelites ate in haste – watching, waiting, for this last plague to pass over them. The plague of death.

Yet this one was different. It was not only the last of its kind. It was also the first of its kind. This one was very different because every Passover lamb that had been sacrificed from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus led up to this moment. Every one of those Passover lambs pointed ahead to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and his sacrifice, his blood, to deliver his people from a plague.

Perhaps the world didn’t realize it, but one nation knew. One nation knew that they had been watching and waiting for a Messiah to come so that the plague of death would pass over. Not the death of a firstborn – as in the time of Moses in Egypt. But this death they were waiting to be delivered from was the death that sin brought. Physical death for all people and spiritual death in hell because all sinned. The Passover lamb and many other sacrifices at the Temple were all reminders that we have sinned, and sin brings about death.

So every year, every household in Israel would take a year old lamb – a lamb still in its prime – without blemish or defect. They would set it apart for a few days and then slaughter it at twilight. For centuries this lamb giving its life both reminded the Israelites of God’s powerful deliverance from Egypt, and pointed ahead to the Lamb of God who would deliver all people from sin and the death that it brought. And at this Passover, knowing what would happen that evening and the next day, Jesus instituted something new. He took some of the same elements of that Passover meal, bread and wine, and instituted a new meal that would both remind us of the sacrifice and blood shed by the Lamb of God, and connect each one of us personally to the payment that was made so that the plague of death would Passover each one of us as well. Connect each one of us to Jesus’ body and blood.

 

I think this all became much more vivid for us this year. As each one of us has been gathered in our own homes, with only our family. As each one of us is waiting for this new plague, the coronavirus, to pass over. It kind of takes us back to that moment – at least a little bit. Watching… waiting… wondering when this will all be done and how we will know.

It also puts into perspective how Jesus made sure there was no doubt, no questioning of how we would know our plague of sin has passed over. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has given his life, shed his own blood, for your deliverance. He declared from the cross, in no uncertain terms, “It is finished”. The plague of sin and death has passed over because of your sacrificial lamb – Jesus Christ. He reminds you of that proclamation and connects you to himself – the price for your deliverance – when he communes with you in the Holy Supper he established. “Take and eat; this is my body…. Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:26-28). Here I am for you, with you, in you, by the power of the gospel with my true body and true blood. Now surely you will not doubt it that in days of joy and sorrow, in life and in death, I am closer to you than any human being could ever be. I know all that you are, all that you have done and will do, all of your good works and all of your sins, and I do not despise you; no, I want to be with you and live in you forever and ever!

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Real Humility Accomlishes Things (April 5, 2020)

April 4, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Real Humility Accomplishes Things

Philippians 2:5-11

https://youtu.be/cgVKFQgM7Ls

 

A man named Rehoboam had a choice to make. Would he give a little, or hold the line? Would he be a servant, or insist that the people serve him. If you don’t recognize the name Rehoboam, you probably know his father, king Solomon. Solomon was the third king of Israel, the last of the united kingdom of Israel. David had greatly expanded the borders of Israel on his many conquests. Solomon, David’s son, reigned during Israel’s golden age. The borders were at their greatest extent. Due to his incomparable wisdom their economy was booming, the temple of the Lord was built, and many other building projects were undertaken. It was a great and glorious time for Israel!

After Solomon, then, came his son Rehoboam. And we get some insight on the past years under Solomon when the people come to make Rehoboam king. The people came with a request for their new king. “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kgs 12:4). Rehoboam sent the people away for three days as he thought over his answer. During those three days he consulted both the elders who had served his father Solomon, and his friends – young men who had grown up with him. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” (1 kgs 12:6) he asked. Give a little, or hold the line? Be a servant, or insist on service? The elders who had served Solomon gave a very wise answer, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants” (1 Kgs 12:7). Sound advice. Advice echoed by many throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, Rehoboam did not listen to these elders. He listened instead to his friends who advised him to “tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier” (1 Kgs 12:10-11). Following this advice led to the division of the nation of Israel, and a continuous downward spiral.

It seems simple. It’s easily the wise thing to do – to serve others and win their favor and loyalty. Yet it’s a far more difficult thing to do. Because as I can easily say the advice of the elders here is better, it’s not always the way I act. It’s not easy to be humble and serve. It’s not easy to think of others first when our human nature is to insist on being treated rightly, fairly, and upholding justice at all costs! It even sounds very noble when you say it like that. “I’m making sure justice is upheld. I’m making sure things are fair – that people get what they deserve!”

But life’s not always fair, is it? It’s a lesson I teach my kids. A lesson that I’ve been taught since I was young, probably you as well. Life isn’t always fair. Easy to say. Harder to do. Because when I am cut off on the road, or when someone has abandoned me for something better, or when times are tough and everyone’s number one concern is first for themselves, well, I need to address that! I have to make sure people know they have wronged me. I deserve to have my moment of sadness, or pity, or anger. I deserve to avenge myself and make things fair once again!

The problem with insisting upon fairness, however, is that it’s often a one-way street in our eyes. When people wrong me, I must be avenged. But if I accidentally wrong someone else, well, there was good reason for it. We are quite good at making judgments against others, but not so good at searching our own hearts. Remember what Jesus says, “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Mt 7:2). You know how it stings when the finger is turned around and pointed at you. You’ve had someone call you out for the very same wrongs you call others out for. And it stings. You don’t want to admit your wrong, but you know they have judged correctly. When was the last time you took a moment to reflect on your own wrongs, your repeated offenses, the excuses you give that are really just given to cover up guilt? Sit down with your Bible and an open heart. Humbly listen to God’s judgment. “The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled and human pride brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Is 2:11).

The apostle Paul says, just before these verses in Philippians 2, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Php 2:3-4). Did you know that Paul was imprisoned while writing these words? Wrongly imprisoned, I might add. Imprisoned for preaching the Good News of Christ Jesus! And yet, this letter is filled with joy! Not grumbling and complaining, or threats of justice, but joy! Listen to some of the things he writes: “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Php 1:3). “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel” (Php 1:12). “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (Php 1:18-19) – and I’m not even through the first chapter yet. The apostle expresses a joy that nothing in this world can take from him, a joy that glows brightly when faced with adversity.

And he has this joy, because real humility accomplishes things. He knew that, in Jesus’ case, real humility won our salvation. Jesus had all power and all authority. He had the right to judge and he could have rightly judged every person that he crossed paths with. But it wouldn’t have been a pretty picture. It would mean a trail of condemnation and death in his wake. That’s not what he came to do. Jesus came to seek and save the lost – to seek and save sinners like me and like you.

So, Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Php 2:6). He didn’t force his rule or judgments upon anyone – even though he rightly could have. He was God! “Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Php 2:7). Jesus humbled himself by setting aside his power, and authority, and right to judge. He humbled himself by taking on the very nature of his creation – stepping into our flesh and blood. Not to see it from our perspective – a “living in our shoes” kind of thing. But to take upon himself all of our infirmities, all of our burdens, all of our guilt and the ugliness of our sins. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Php 2:8). He didn’t come to judge us, but to take our just judgment upon himself. To uphold God’s justice at all costs – paying for every sin by his cursed suffering and death upon the cross – but being merciful and gracious to us in the process.

I think of the times when Jesus performed an astounding miracle, or lovingly helped a mother who lost her child, or a father whose daughter was sick. And rather that soaking in the praise and glory that he rightly deserved, he encouraged the people not to tell anyone. Because if people saw Jesus as only one who could meet their physical needs and take away their physical ailments – making him their king – then he would have been prevented from meeting their far more important spiritual needs and taking away their far more detrimental spiritual ailments. His humility accomplished your most important need – salvation.

I find it interesting that on Palm Sunday, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people were crying out something very similar to Rehoboam’s day. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Mt 21:9) means “Save us, Son of David.” Isn’t that basically what they cried out to Rehoboam? “Lighten our labor, take off our heavy yoke, grandson of David. Save us!” Unlike Rehoboam, Jesus did become our servant. He did save us by taking our labor upon himself and bearing our heavy yoke of sin. His true humility accomplished our salvation.

This text has taken us to the one extreme – Jesus, the lowest of men, who died the meanest, most despised kind of death there was. A death reserved for the worst criminals and slaves. A death cursed by God (Dt 21:23). But then it takes us to the other extreme. Jesus, fully God, exalted to the highest place. “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Php 2:9-10). He didn’t do it for the exaltation, or the glory, fame, or even his own vengeance. He did it for you. He did it to serve you and save you from a certain death and condemnation in hell. And because he did it, God the Father exalted him. “for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Ac 4:12). Jesus Christ is the name above every name. The name that every tongue will confess in heaven and on earth and under the earth!

That’s great news for you! It means that you don’t have to worry about being right, or being just, or things being fair. It means that you can be humble knowing that in the end you will be exalted far above anything you deserve because of what Jesus did. But it also means that there will be many who did not confess Jesus during their lifetime and so will confess him from “under the earth” – from hell.

This creates a sense of urgency. We want them to confess Christ during their lifetime, not after it. There’s a sense of compassion, and a longing to reach out and share Christ with people. And we can learn from Jesus how to do this. Not exalting ourselves, but humbling ourselves. Because real humility accomplishes things. In Jesus’ case, it won our salvation. In our case, it serves our neighbor to demonstrate Christ’s love. When you give a little rather than hold your ground. When you become a servant rather than insist that others serve you, it gets attention. People wonder why you don’t fight for what you deserve. Especially in hard times – different times – like we are in now. When people’s schedules are off. When people can’t find everything they need at the stores. When people are fearful, questioning, or maybe even struggling due to a lack of work… are we unbending? Or do we lighten the yoke? Are we focusing on the negatives, or seeing the positives through all of this? The apostle Paul, wrongly imprisoned, saw the good. “What has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (Php 1:12-13).

In a sense, this pandemic has leveled the playing field and opened our eyes to things we take for granted. Homeschooling has opened parents’ eyes to the work of a teacher. Grocery shopping has opened our eyes to the work of supply chains and store workers. Online services have caused churches everywhere to see ministry from a new perspective. In all of this we’ve learned to humble ourselves, appreciate others, and shine in Christian love. Even in humbling times, the gospel brightly shines!

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No More Questions (March 29, 2020)

March 28, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

No More Questions

John 11:17-27, 38-45

https://youtu.be/ATsqnR-wLio

There was no question that Lazarus was really dead. He had already been in the tomb for four days. It was certain that Mary and Martha, along with their friends had seen the last of Lazarus. Dead people don’t come back to life, they just don’t. And what’s really strange is that it seems that Jesus actually delayed his coming. Earlier in chapter 11, when Jesus got word of the death of Lazarus, it says, “When [Jesus] heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (Jn 11:6). For some reason, Jesus wanted to make absolutely certain that everyone knew without question that Lazarus was dead.

In these times, we too are all too familiar with death. If you’ve been watching the news or keeping up to date on the CDC and WHO websites you see every day that death toll rising in your own country and across the globe. Maybe someone close to you has already died or is facing death in this pandemic. And although we are familiar with death, it often still surprises us. We shudder with grief, like Martha did saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21). Why did this happen? Why so soon. We ask the question why, not necessarily out of unbelief, but out of crushing grief. Why does it have to be the end? Why is it so final? Why does this happen?

Well, we know why. The Bible makes it clear why death happens. We know full well that death is a result of sin. We know full well that all people sin, therefore all people die. It doesn’t make it easy to bear the grief, but in a sense it does help. Because if we know the cause of death – not the physical cause, but the spiritual cause – then we can find a solution! If there was a way to rid this body of sin, or reverse the effects of sin, then there might be hope once again!

Once there was no question about the death of Lazarus, then it was time for Jesus to see if there were any questions about the faith of Martha. Martha knows that if Jesus was there at the moment of the death of Lazarus, that Jesus could have prevented it. Jesus then reminds her that he doesn’t only prevent death before it happens, but he can undo death. He says, “Your brother will rise again” (Jn 11:23). To which Martha expresses a clear faith in the future resurrection, “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask…. I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn 11:22,24). She wasn’t asking or even expecting that Jesus would raise her brother Lazarus right then and there. She was just saying what any believer would say when faced with the gripping reality of death. When we trust in God but don’t know what to say… When words fail: “I don’t even know what to ask for, but I know you will do what is right.” “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask…. I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn 11:22,24).

I can almost see her face falling at those words. Not in hopelessness. The certain hope remains. But until that day, until the resurrection on the last day, there will be many hard days in between. And then I can see Jesus gently cupping her cheeks in his hands and saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26)

His words are very simple and very clear. Yet the promise is breathtaking, if we take Jesus seriously! Jesus isn’t simply glossing over the fact of physical death. We see it, it’s a reality we face. But what he is saying is that those who live in faith never really die. They change location, but they never really die. Jesus not only has the power to resurrect and give life, he IS the resurrection and the life! And the life Jesus is talking about is not just a beating pulse and rhythmic breathing. The life that Jesus is and gives is the power of God to make people alive – it’s that creative and preserving power which he used all the way back at creation. It’s that power we see illustrated to Ezekiel as he prophesies to a valley of dry bones and by the power of God’s Word they come to life! So, at the intersection that each of us will have with death, these are the most refreshing words we could hear. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (Jn 11:25). In Jesus, death is but a doorway to a new and different life! Suddenly, death doesn’t seem so final, so permanent. Suddenly death isn’t so scary. Suddenly, death has lost its permanent sting.

Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:26). Jesus actually asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” He already knew. He knows a person’s faith. But for Martha’s benefit, he wanted her to say it out loud. He wanted her to not only believe in hear heart but confess her faith and cling to Jesus, the object of her faith, in this time of great distress. What came out of her mouth probably surprised her. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (Jn 11:27). Such a clear and comprehensive statement of faith! Perhaps one of the clearest we find anywhere in scripture! And this confession, given in the face of unremitting grief, is positive, heroic, and uplifting!

Do you believe this? I’ll ask you the same question that Jesus did Martha. Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? If we do, we don’t always act like we do. It’s not always on the forefront of our minds. When we are faced with death sometimes we grieve as those who do not have hope, rather than grieving as ones who do have hope. When faced with any terrifying sickness or disease – like we are right now – do we always believe that God who gave life, sustains life, and is that life in you, will continue to preserve your life in the future – either here on this earth or with him in heaven? Or when your family member or friend is struggling with death or disease, does this truth flow as effortlessly from your lips as it did for Martha? It will if you are in it regularly and by the work of the Holy Spirit clinging to it in every situation.

So, do you believe this? Those are some pretty big claims by Jesus That he is the resurrection and the life. How can we be sure? How can we be sure that Jesus can do what he says – that there is a resurrection to come? Because Jesus doesn’t leave any question about what he can do.

In the second half of this reading, Jesus shows that he is not an idle boaster, but is indeed the Resurrection and the Life. When he came to the tomb, the Bible says that Jesus was “deeply moved.” A very interesting emotion that the words are trying to convey. The word itself means more of a “snort.” It was a snort of indignation, of irritation. A “khaaa” deep from your chest. It’s almost as if to say that Jesus was just sick and tired of death. Sick and tired of the way it rips apart families. Sick and tired of the pain it causes. As the resurrection and the LIFE, Jesus wanted to be done with death. And in this instance, at least for now, he is. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had shown that he has authority over demons, authority over the wind and waves, and now he shows that he has authority even over death itself. With just a simple word, Jesus commanded life to enter Lazarus once again. Just has he had commanded light into being, the earth into being, and all life upon the earth. Jesus speaks with authority and power over all things – even over something as seemingly irreversible as death. He commanded life to once again enter Lazarus. Death let go. Life entered. Lazarus came out of the tomb, still wrapped in the burial cloths. Then Jesus said, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go” (Jn 11:44).

He will say the same to you one day. He will command death to let go of your physical body and will undo all the pain and ripping apart that death does. You know and believe without a question that Jesus will do this because he has shown you. And now I’m not talking about just the temporary raising to life of Lazarus. He still died once again. But Jesus has shown you that you will be raised to eternal life, never to die again, when he himself rose from the grave after being dead, no question about it, for 3 days. Jesus rose as the firstfruit, the forerunner, of all the dead. And he could do this because he actually got at the root of the problem itself. Not death, but sin. He took away sin, and in doing so he took away permanent death. His resurrection leaves no questions about it. No question about your own resurrection on the Last Day. You will rise, because Jesus rose and lives.

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When the Shelves are Bare (March 22, 2020)

March 21, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

When the Shelves are Bare

Matthew 20:17-28

https://youtu.be/VkGzOANDWmw

 

Have you gone out and braved a grocery store yet? It was a couple days after the initial panic that my family and I had time to get to the store. So, this was a couple weeks ago already. We needed to make our regular, weekly grocery run, and unfortunately that included some of the items that were hard to find – whole milk and wipes for our baby, rice, and yes… even toilet paper we were getting low on. I knew it would be hard to find certain items, but I had no clue just how thoroughly the stores would be picked through. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all the stands of fresh fruits and vegetable completely empty. I was shocked to see all the chicken and pork almost completely gone. Although I expected it to be bad, I didn’t realize just how bad it was. It felt like I was in a different country. And my heart just sank when my daughter asked, somewhat concerned, “Why is there no food?”

That evening was hard. A lot of thoughts and emotions racing through my head and heart. On the one hand I wanted to give “those hoarders” a good talking to. Yet, on the other hand, it was important for people to practice good hygiene and even stock a little more food than usual. I wasn’t really worried that there would be a shortage of supplies steadily coming in, yet I also didn’t consider what the severe strain on the supply chain would do to grocery stores. It also made me think of the human condition – how our own sinful nature, at its core is selfish and cares only about satisfying our own needs. And though we can be kind and loving people most of the time, when crisis strikes – when the shelves are bare – hearts too are laid bare. Sinful hearts are revealed.

It happened even among those who’s hearts got to be with Jesus and hear from him on a regular basis. As Jesus was going to Jerusalem – going toward his certain death on the cross – he said to his disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18-19). He was telling them this to warn them and prepare them for the difficult times that lay ahead. Prepare yourselves. Guard your hearts. For you are going to witness some things that will shake you to the core. Some very dire times. Yet take heart, because I will rise again on the third day!

Yet, the depth of the natural selfishness, even of those who follow Jesus, is demonstrated in this mother’s request. Jesus had spoken of the price he would selflessly pay. They definitely grasped that something big was going to happen, and that in some way this would mean big things for Jesus’ kingdom. Yet, rather than rallying around him and supporting Jesus for what lay ahead, the mother’s thoughts were on the privilege and profit her sons could gain from his payment. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Mt 20:21). I don’t think this request came just from the mother, either. I don’t think James and John were innocent of the matter. They likely were all talking about it, but had their mother make the request. They didn’t know what they were asking. Jesus points that out. But their hearts were revealed by the question that Jesus asked, “What is it you want?” (Mt 20:21). Rather than marveling at the depth of his love and self-sacrifice, the disciples argued about places of greatness in glory. And the other disciples are right there with them. “They were indignant with the two brothers” (Mt 20:24), but not righteously so.

When all is said and done, “What is it you want?” is really the telling question. Do you want personal gain or comfort? Do you want your own security? Do you want to love as God loves? Our actions reveal what we really want. Our actions lay bare our true hearts. There is fear and panic. There is hoarding and gouging. There is selfishness in every one of us. And during these times of illness and contagiousness, during these times of recommended “social distancing” and difficulty finding certain items at the stores, we all have to carefully think through our actions. Do I continue with my scheduled meetings since I’m not showing any symptoms, or err on the side of caution? Do I stock up on supplies when I can find them, or leave some for others to take? Do we heed the CDCs recommendations and temporarily suspend worship, or continue to gather with precautions in place?

There’s a lot to weigh, and as the situation gets more severe and potentially more drawn out, if supplies should run thin or become hard to find, our hearts too will be revealed. That’s a scary thought, because I know my heart. The Bible lays bare the condition of my heart. I know that the sinful flesh still dwells there. I know that “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Rm 7:18-19) And I know that “those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the [sinful] flesh desires” (Rm 8:5). As I see the true colors of my own sinful heart begin to show through, I see the frightening reality of “What it is that sin really wants” – and let me tell you, it’s not God nor to reflect his love. As the true condition of my heart shines through, I am more and more convinced of what it is that I truly deserve. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rm 7:24).

Thankfully, when the shelves are bare, when times are dire, when our hearts are revealed, the heart of Jesus is revealed too. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Mt 20:22) he asks. The Son of God would leave his heavenly throne and selflessly give his freedom to his enemies, his body to the torturer, his life to the executioner in order to be our Savior. He took our sin, our plague, onto himself to cleanse us and be the antidote we needed. He was separated from his heavenly Father so that you wouldn’t have to be distanced from him for all eternity. He gave up his life, so that you could live eternally. “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rm 7:25). “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rm 8:1-2). Now you are no longer driven by the desires of the sinful flesh, but you are guided and motivated by the Spirit who gives life.

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The cup is always an instrument of satisfaction. With his cup Jesus satisfied the demands of God’s laws – the condemnation and death that our sinful flesh deserves. Those who swallow this truth are satisfied knowing that they are no longer condemned, but have been forgiven, renewed, set free! So that even now in difficult times, when the shelves are bare, when some are faced with the very real threat of death, yet even now we are satisfied, our hearts are filled, with the peace of knowing that we have a home with God in heaven – where there will be no more sickness or death, no more sadness or quarantining. We will be united with one another and with God himself, dwelling in peace and safety for all eternity! So, whether we are taken to our heavenly home now or in the distant future, we are at peace. We are content.

Jesus concludes by pointing out a contrast between those who live (governed) by fleshly concerns, and those who are in Christ Jesus living by the Spirit. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25-28).

There’s a way that the worldly, sinful heart acts, and a way that those filled with Christ and led by the Spirit act. We all have the sinful heart. But that selfish heart is overcome by filling up on the selfless love of Jesus. Those who fill up on Jesus’ love and the calm peace that comes only through him, then, delight in serving others – are actually satisfied in meeting the needs of others! It goes against common conviction that doing what someone else wants would be satisfying. But God doesn’t lord it over you, he doesn’t force anyone. Rather, he serves you and fills you, so that you also genuinely find joy and satisfaction in serving others.

Now is a great time to let the light of Christ shine. When shelves are bare and people are uneasy. There are so many opportunities. It brings me great joy to hear about the many ways people are drowning the selfish heart with Christ’s love and leading selfless lives of service. There’s a church body in another country that is pooling their masks, soap, and other supplies from members, distributing them as needed. The article I read states that many of their church families have resolved to share their supplies until there is nothing left. When they have two dollops of hand soap left, Christians give the first one away.

Another example I’ve come across recently is of a young mother in the medical field who was asked to serve in the coronavirus section of the hospital for the next several months. Doing so would mean temporarily moving out of her home, away from her husband who was high risk, and her young baby. She was exploring the possibility of staying with a friend who would have to understand that when – not ifwhen they are both infected, they would have to self-isolate as well. In fact, I’ve heard several similar stories of medical professionals rising to their calling, to expose themselves to the virus, to selflessly serve others.

It’s what Jesus has done for all people. Born in the flesh. Walking, living, breathing among us. Selflessly giving up his life to cleanse us from the deadly plague of sin and take away the fear of death. When the shelves were bare – so to speak – he revealed his heart by dying for you. He fills your heart with his love so that you can reveal the love of Christ through a serving heart.

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Shadows of the Cross: Abraham, Isaac, and the Ram (March 11, 2020)

March 12, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Shadows of the Cross: Abraham, Isaac, and the Ram

Genesis 22:1-14

To really understand just how heavy of a request this is, we have to go back a bit. Abraham and his wife Sarah wanted children. In fact, as they were getting up in years, I’m sure they desperately wanted children. They knew Sarah was barren, but that probably didn’t stop the longing and the praying. Eventually, though, you have to face the natural order of things. They became too old for children and, well, they had to come to grips with that reality. But when Abraham was 75 years old – and Sarah up there in years as well – God promised that Abraham would have a child!

Yet, that child didn’t come right away. In fact, it was 25 years before Abraham and Sarah would finally have that promised child. During those 25 years, God repeated his promise again and again, until finally, when Abraham was 100 years old, he had a son, his only son, and named him Isaac.

Needless to say, he loved this son. He cherished this son. Put this all into the context also of a culture that highly cherished male descendants so that the family line may be preserved, and you could see how easy it would be for Abraham to idolize his son.

So, God wanted to test Abraham. Does Abraham love his son more than God? He said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Gen 22:2). Be sure to take this in its context. Abraham was not slipping into idolatrous practices of child sacrifice. God had commanded this. Yet, God was not interested in the death of Isaac, only in the willingness of Abraham’s faith. It was a test. It’s one thing to say, “I love you above all else.” It’s another thing to show it. And when God tests people, it’s always intended for good – teaching us to rely on God and his Word, or showing us what distractions we can live without, or some other purpose. God’s intention is that his people grow closer to him, especially in times of testing.

Abraham’s faith is revealed in his immediate response to the Lord’s command and in his complete preparation for the approaching sacrifice. He left, “Early the next morning” (Gen 22:3). He cut the wood needed. He brought the knife. He brought the fire. I would have been bawling my eyes out as I was chopping the wood. Even if I believed that God would do something miraculous – raising my son from the dead (there’s evidence here that Abraham perhaps believed God would do that – even so, I can’t imagine doing anything that would hurt or harm my sons’ lives.

You can’t help but see God the Father here. God the Father and his loving relationship with Jesus, God the Son, here. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love” (Gen 22:2). Almost the same exact words the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism and again at his Transfiguration. “This is my Son, whom I love.” “Sacrifice him there… on a mountain” (Gen 22:2). On Mt. Moriah, it was Abraham ready to give up his only son, whom he loves. On Mt. Calvary, it’s God the Father actually giving up his Son, his only Son, whom he loves. Not just sorta. Not just halfway. God actually sacrificed his only Son. Completely. Actually dead. The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all, turned his face away, and had Jesus die for the sins of the whole world. For your sins, and my sins. Because although he truly loves his only-begotten Son. He also dearly loves all people of the world, and wants all people to be saved – to become his own sons and daughters. And this was the only way.

 

Soon it became clear to Isaac, as well, what was going on. Abraham unloaded the donkey, and placed the wood for the burnt offering on his son Isaac. Jesus, himself, carried the wooden cross he would be sacrificed on. Abraham carried the fire and the knife (Gen 22:6). And as they were traveling along, Isaac spoke up, “Father?… The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen 22:7). Abraham, out of love, did not want to cause his sun any unnecessary pain, so he replied, “God himself will proved” (Gen 22:8). But I’m sure it became clear as Abraham bound his own son and laid him on the altar (Gen 22:9). Probably, through tears, Abraham explained God’s command as he bound Isaac. What that conversation must have been like. And yet, Isaac seems to have willingly gone forward with it, not questioning God’s will.

This last conversation between father and son, was probably a lot like the conversation between the Father, and the Son when Jesus prayed on the Mt. of Olives. Father, if this cup may be taken from me. Yet, not my will, but your will be done. And, just as we have no word from Isaac recorded in this account, so Jesus unquestioningly obeyed the Father’s will. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Is 53:7).

 

Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son” (Gen 22:10). And here’s where the shadow of the cross shifts from Isaac, to the ram. “The angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy, do not do anything to him” (Gen 22:11-12). Unlike the Father who did not spare his only Son, Abraham’s son is spared. You are spared from the punishment that your sins deserve. God says of you, “Do not lay a hand on him. Do not do anything to him” because a substitute was offered in your place.

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will Provide.’ And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” (Gen 22:13-14). God did provide on the mountain. He provided a substitute that you may be set free. He provided a substitute who really suffered and died for all your sins so that you could be spared. So that you could go free. So that you could live!

 

We see a shadow of the cross from many angles in this one account. We see a father’s willing sacrifice. We see a son’s unquestioning obedience. And we see a substitute offered so that a son could live. But as we talk about this shadow in detail, don’t forget that the reality is in Christ and his cross. Do not let go of the reality and cling to the shadow. You are not saved by Abraham. Nor was Isaac or the ram sacrificed for you. The point is not to ask, If I were Abraham, could I prove my faith and do as he did. That doesn’t matter because God, your Father already did it for you. Jesus was truly sacrificed in your place. And just as Jesus rose, you too live a new life now, and forever in heaven.

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