An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Mission Minded: Compassionate at heart (Feb 7, 2021)

February 9, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Mission Minded: Compassionate at heart

Mark 1:29-39

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Why did Jesus come? Why did he leave heaven and come to earth? I know there’s a lot of good ways of answering that question that all basically say the same thing. You might say, “He came to take away our sins by dying and rising.” Or, “He came to save us and bring us to heaven.” You could even say, “He came to do mission work – to preach the gospel – that we might believe, and by believing have life in his name.” All great answers. All correct! Yet, if that is his purpose, then why do we have so many accounts of Jesus healing people, driving out demons, and doing other miracles? Why so many accounts of him where he seems to focus on physical needs rather than spiritual needs? How do these fit into Jesus’ purpose of seeking and saving the lost?

I’m not sure if you have noticed it, but we’ve had a lot of gospel readings from Mark 1 recently. In fact, all the readings from the past few Sundays have been back-to-back accounts. First, Jesus called some of his first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John. And although Mark doesn’t mention it in his account, Luke records a miracle that happened that day. After preaching from Peter’s boat, Jesus told Peter to put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch. Peter recently came in from fishing. They hadn’t caught anything all night. But when they listened to Jesus, “they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break… and their boats began to sink” (Lk 5:6-7). Then we had Jesus teaching in the synagogue and a man who was demon-possessed cried out against Jesus, so Jesus drove the demon out. Now the reading for today, which actually happened that very same day, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. And, after seeing or hearing about the miracles that Jesus had been doing, “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He drove out many demons” (Mk 1:33-34) as well.

It seems like this is a very troubled town! There are illnesses, diseases, physical defects, not to mention demon-possession. This was a town that was weighed down with all kinds of difficulties, and obstacles, and dire needs. But which town isn’t? How many here in Temple have needs that they are struggling to meet? How many are sick, or weary, or downhearted? How many of you right here in this room are struggling in some way or going through some sort of difficulty at this very time in your lives? Maybe others know about it. Maybe only you know. Let me ask you, if you heard that Jesus was in town, would you go to him for help? Would you find out whose house he’s staying at and go to see him right after church? What would you say to him? What kinds of things would you ask him to help you with?

We all have difficulties in life. It’s a fact. And you could use those difficulties to fuel your disappointment and depression. You could use it to fuel your discontentment or anger with God for allowing such things to happen. Or…… Or, you could see them as a reminder that you can’t go it alone. You can’t do this on your own. Last week we talked briefly about the forces of evil that are against you. Devils and demons trying to tempt you, trying to pull you away from God, putting obstacles and difficulties in your path with hopes that they will cause you to curse God and turn away from him. Your own sinfulness too – my own sinfulness – on its own that sinfulness is enough to keep you and me separated from God. And my sinfulness continues to put sinful thoughts and motives in my mind, leading me to do sinful things. It may cause me to think that I don’t have time to help anyone else because I have enough problems of my own. It may cause me to think that my problems are bigger than anyone else’s. I could even take all this as a sign that I should just give up and despair of all hope. Or, I can take this as a reminder that I need help. It’s ok to admit it. You need help too. We can’t do it on our own. And that is why Jesus came.

In this reading we see so many people flocking to Jesus because they know their needs, and they know that they are powerless to meet these needs on their own. We also read about probably the most famous example of someone who is suffering and in need, Job. In just the first two chapters of the book of Job, he lost nearly everything he had. He lost all his herds, he lost all his sons and daughters, he lost his health. And as he lay there with no source of income, no children, struggling with grief, body infested with sores, what did he do? In pain and suffering his only recourse is prayer that trusts in the mercy of God and in the power of God to relieve and to rescue. The power and hope of the gospel are evident in the basic fact that Job prays at all. He continues to trust in God’s mercy and his promises to hear and help him even in the face of such terrible suffering. Even with the expectation that the only rescue will be in death, Job does not abandon his trust. He prays, “Do not mortals have hard service on earth? Are not their days like those of hired laborers?… So I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me… My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again” (Job 7:1-7).

Some prayer, huh? But notice, although his prayer is filled with misery and distress, he doesn’t turn away from God. In fact, these are the very things we should be bringing to God! Your prayers don’t have to all be roses and sunshine. They don’t have to be carefully crafted with eloquent phrases and quoted Scriptures. Jesus says, “Come to me you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). You are encouraged to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pt 5:7). There’s only two outcomes to any kind of misery you face in life – only two outcomes that matter. Either, Satan will use that misery to drive you away from God. Or, God will use it to drive you to your knees, and then will raise you up again with the gospel in hope that trusts and triumphs even if the suffering stays. Each and every one of your problems, every trouble you have, every obstacle that blocks your way can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Because each one of them gives you a reason to seek Jesus, the compassionate and merciful Savior.

Earlier I asked how many of you would go see Jesus if he was right here in our city today. Well, he is here! He’s with you every day. Any time you need to lay a burden on him, he is right there to listen to you in prayer. Any time you need to hear from him, he’s right there in the Scriptures or even in your mind with the parts that you have memorized! We also have the privilege of gathering in a place like this – together with many others who are hurting or struggling each in their own way – and sitting at his feet to hear his words of compassion. And I understand, we don’t physically see him. We can’t physically touch him and cling to him. I can’t wait until the day we can! Jesus understands that too. He understands that we are sensory beings – bundles of nerves and senses. And so, he also comes to us in two very special ways. The first is baptism, where he not only says your sins are washed away completely, but he connects it with a physical element used with his words: “Baptized (“washed”) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). And when you are burdened with guilt or wearied with troubles, he not only feeds you with his word, but feeds you in a special way with his own body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins to strengthen you and keep you. He connects you to him in both word and sacrament.

He does this, because he cares for you and so that you can focus, not on your troubles, but on his Mission of reaching the lost. It’s very useful for us to put our own problems and hindrances in this perspective: trials spur us to seek his help; his help spurs us to do his work. There are many hurting people in the world. There are many people struggling, in pain, and in distress. And you have what they need! I know we often think of mission work as knocking on people’s doors to invite them to something we have going on at church. Or volunteering for an event where maybe we can talk to strangers about Jesus. And that is a form of mission work – but not one that everyone is suited for or feels comfortable with.

You may not realize it, but all life long God has been equipping you for a different kind of mission work – a mission work that understands people’s hurts and needs because you’ve been there. You’ve experience it. And, having experienced it, you can sit in the pit with a person you know when they are hurting. You can understand them in a way that no one else does. You know what they are struggling with mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. And when they realize they can’t get through this on their own, you can introduce them to Jesus, your compassionate Lord. Maybe you know what it’s like to struggle with the worries and anxiety that come with a cancer diagnosis, and you can be an ear to someone who is going through that. Maybe you know what it’s like to walk through life with a hole in your heart because you lost someone you love, and you can be a friend, a companion – someone to cry with or laugh with. Maybe you know what it’s like to hit rock bottom and feel stuck or hopeless as you try to figure out what to do, and you can be there to offer help or a sense of security to someone who just hit new lows.

Each of you is unique in what you have experienced. Each of you is uniquely gifted with difficult and painful experiences that allow you to minister in ways that I never could – nor could the person sitting next to you. Each of you is also gifted with the compassionate heart of Jesus. I love the Greek work for compassion. It’s splankna. It literally means that your stomach is turning out. Or, as we would say, your heart goes out to them. You can actually feel it. And even if there is no foreseeable hope of things getting any better, if you’ve used this opportunity to tell them about Jesus – your anchor in churning waters – then you have given them something better. You’ve given them the Gospel. You’ve given them a home in heaven.

That is why Jesus came. Though we read about many of his miracles, the main point was never the miracles themselves. Jesus puts emphasis on the preaching, not the miracles. After telling the people about who he is – God our Savior – he then proved it with miracles. They supplemented his message, but they are not his main purpose. That is why, when it was clear that the crowds were only gathering to see his miracles, he said, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mk 1:38).

Jesus met people’s immediate needs, so that he could meet their eternal need. Better than anyone else, he knew that the miracle of bringing a sinner to faith was infinitely more important than even the most dramatic healing or exorcism. And that’s a miracle that Jesus still does today! When you reach out in compassion to meet immediate needs, you also gain an opportunity to reach out with the gospel so that Jesus can meet their eternal need. That is why he came.

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Mission Minded: Realistic about the opposition (Jan 31, 2021)

February 9, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Mission Minded: Realistic about the oppression

Mark 1:21-28

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Recently, I’ve sent out several similar emails with a statement that basically said, “You are never safer than when you are sitting at Jesus’ feet, hearing from his Word, surrounded by fellow believers.” Well, it seems that the reading for today throws a wrench in that statement and completely shatters that confidence. Because, when Jesus was in Capernaum teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, a man who was possessed by a demon began to cry out against him! Now if a man who was literally sitting at Jesus’ feet in church, listening to his very Word could be possessed by a demon, what does that say about any similar gathering? What does that say about our church and our people as we gather around God’s Word? Are we really safer? Are we safe from Satan’s threats or not?

Today we are going to talk about just that. We are going to see if the statement that I sent out, that you are never safer, really holds up to scrutiny. And we are addressing this because if we are going to be a Mission Minded church with Mission Minded individuals, then we need to be realistic about the opposition. We need to understand what we are working against, exploit weaknesses, and emphasize our strengths.

Let’s take a look at what happened that day. It’s still quite early in Jesus’ ministry, but he was gaining a reputation as a teacher – a Rabbi. He had already called a number of disciples to devote their time to learning from him. And, he had been invited to teach at the synagogue in Capernaum. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mk 1:22). There was a marked difference between Jesus and the other rabbis the people were accustomed to hearing. In other parts of Scripture, it talks about Jesus being able to draw connections between different sections of Scripture. Here, the people marvel at his “authority”. This is saying that Jesus had a deep understanding and strong handle on what the Scriptures say. And, of course he does. He is God. These are the Scriptures that testify about him! So, whereas many of the rabbis of Jesus’ day were so concerned with teaching the people their many man-made laws, and so busy explaining things about the Scriptures that they missed the Scripture’s message, Jesus taught the Scriptures. He understood them, and he was able to open them up to the people. This teaching with authority, then, comes across as having such a clear understanding of the Scriptures that no one doubted that he spoke the truth of God’s Word. Opened them up with new depth.

And the truth is something that Satan and the demons cannot handle. They don’t want the truth proclaimed. So a man, who had been there all along – who was perhaps a regular member of the synagogue – revealed the evil that lurked within. He was possessed by a demon, and the demon cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mk 1:24). Let this serve as a reminder that we are never free from the threat of Satan. This starts to get at the original question, then. If we are never free from his threats, where are we safest? It seems that this demon possessed man was content to remain silent until the truth of God’s Word was spoken. Perhaps while the rabbis before were so concerned with proclaiming their man-made laws, the demon was content to silently stand by, as long as the people were sidetracked from the Scriptures and the truth about God’s plan of salvation. But once Jesus proclaimed truth, and with authority, the demon tried to stop it by crying out against him – perhaps trying to soil Jesus’ reputation by giving him the testimony of demons. They didn’t want the truth proclaimed. They didn’t want the people to know God’s Word. They cried out in protest against the truth.

But Jesus doesn’t just have authority when it comes to revealing the Scriptures. He has authority over all creation – even over the demons. With just a couple simple phrases, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” (Mk 1:25) the demon had to obey the Lord. “The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek” (Mk 1:26). “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him” (Mk 1:27).

It just goes to show you, brothers and sisters, that you truly are safer when gathered around the truth of God’s Word. Yes, that’s when evil reared its ugly head – but only because it was content with the false teachings the people were hearing. It didn’t want the truth proclaimed. And despite evil rearing its ugly head at the truth, Jesus displayed his power over it. You are Secure in your Savior’s power. You are safe when grounded in his Word.

Now, I want to say just a little more. Don’t underestimate Satan and the demons. He is powerful – much more powerful than you or me. He is cunning – pinpointing where to tempt you and exploiting your weaknesses. He has one goal – that you end up in hell with him. Sometimes he works toward that goal while silently remaining hidden, as he seems to be doing for the most part in our country where the majority of people don’t take him seriously. Other times he works toward that goal by overpowering those who think they can control his powers, as he often does in many cultures that dabble in voodoo and witchcraft. He is a threat to be taken seriously.

But, as you take him seriously, also don’t underestimate your God who fights for you! He is even more powerful and has all authority even over Satan and the demons. He is even more wise, knowing how to strengthen you and how to turn even evil into good. He has one goal, that you remain his and join him in heaven for all eternity. Jesus displayed his power over Satan here in this reading. But his ultimate victory, sealing Satan’s fate (and your fate), happened at the cross. It was there, that Satan thought he had finally done away with the so-called Savior. Yet it was there that Jesus displayed his superior wisdom and power. It was God’s plan all along to send his Son to die for the sins of the whole world – enduring God’s wrath for all sin on the cross – for your sin, and for mine. It was God’s plan all along to destroy death by dying himself and rising from the dead. By his death, you are free from sin and the hold that Satan has on you. By his resurrection, you are free from the bonds of eternal death in hell. You are God’s, secure in your Savior’s power, and not even Satan can harm you.

He can’t harm you. He can’t take away your salvation, unless you let him. But he does continue to tirelessly try. In the coming months, I see one potential threat that he may try to exploit. As we continue our mission of daughtering a new congregation in the Waco area, he may try to use this as an opportunity to divide us when we ought to be united in spreading the joy of salvation! Phrases like, “We are losing members” or “us” and “them” can cause real harm. We aren’t losing members. God’s Kingdom is not getting smaller. We are sending members to the nearby harvest fields to continue God’s Mission of saving souls. We are creating a new outpost of the Gospel that God will use to reach the lost. There’s no “us” and “them”. Not at this point. There’s “our work here” and “our work there,” and God will bless it all. I understand there are challenging times ahead. I know the concerns. And Satan will try to use those to divide us. Be aware of that. Be aware of the fact that he might try to use you or me to create that division. But we have someone with authority working for us! He has authority over how many people are in the pews. He has authority over the financials. He gives authority to the work we do. And he already knows how this will all turn out. So, let’s be faithful with the opportunity he has given us. Let’s rely on his power to turn our hearts when we are the ones creating divisions – accepting correction from those around us. And let him take care of the outcome, trusting in our Savior’s power.

There’s always room to grow in this. We know that we are Secure in our Savior’s power, but we can still be strengthened in that trust from the Word. The Old Testament believers did not have the 20/20 hindsight that we have today. They trusted in the promises of God, the Promised Messiah who would bring salvation, but they did not know exactly how and when these promises would be fulfilled. Some prophecies speak of the Messiah as a suffering servant, while others call him a king who would rule victoriously forever. How could he be both? Well, we see by studying the Scriptures that through his suffering he demonstrated his authority – getting down in the trenches with his people to bring them up. Though he died, he rose victorious over it.

Cling to these victories of your Savior. Let them be your armor against the threats of Satan as he tries to terrify you with displays of power or tries to divide you with his cunning. The reading from Ephesians reminds us of where our strength is. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (Eph 6:12-13). Whatever powers of evil there may be, Paul warns, protect against them by putting on God’s own armor. His truth buckled around your waist. His righteousness covering your heart. The readiness of the Gospel as shoes on your feet. His salvation as your helmet. With all of this, faith in him – his victory – will be your shield. And his Word, through which his Spirit works – will be your sword.

There are many things we have yet to face in our future that we don’t know the outcome of. In fact, for that reason, some cultures describe moving through time as walking backward through it. Your past, in front of you, you can see clearly. Your future, behind you, is yet unknown. But by studying the Scriptures and understanding how God has defeated evil and preserves his people, we can be confident that he will continue to do so for us. By studying our own walk through life and seeing the victories God has given us, we can move confidently into the future!

He’s blessed us: with the security of his victory, with his Word to make us strong. We’ve seen a recent victory of his with new people joining – even during a pandemic! News like this spreads quickly. News like this builds confidence! Brothers and sisters, we are in a good place. Poised to grow this church and be builders in God’s Kingdom. Each one of us has a place in that – whether it be praying for the work to be done and the challenges ahead, encouraging one another and building one another up even as Satan tries to divide us. Even now you can prepare what you might say when given the opportunity to share the reason for the hope that you have! We are in this together as a Mission Minded church. And although we are to be realistic about our opposition, let’s also be realistic about the one who is backing us. We are secure in his power and strengthened as we gather around his Word.

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Mission Minded: Excited about the message (Jan 24, 2021)

February 9, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Mission Minded: Excited about the message

Jonah 3:1-10

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It’s amazing how attitude can drastically change what we do. Ask me to do dishes or clean up a bit when I have a bad attitude and I will feel like you are laying a burden on me. I’ll avoid doing it as much as possible. Maybe I’ll make excuses as to why I can’t or how I’m too busy. And even when I do finally get around to it, I’m not going to enjoy it. I’ll only do it begrudgingly.

That was the attitude of Jonah, right? Jonah is that guy who got swallowed by the big fish. And the reason why he was swallowed by the big fish was because he was running away from God. God called him to a mission, and he didn’t want to go because he had a bad attitude, so he ran away from the work that God called him to do. He was not a very Mission Minded individual. He was not excited about the message of God he had to share.

So why are we talking about him when our theme is to be Mission Minded? Why are we talking about him when today we want to be excited about the Message? It seems like the last place we would want to go. Well, partially, we are going here because Jonah had the right idea about the message – he really did – he just had the wrong attitude. He knew the power of God’s Message, but he considered his work a burden, a chore – much like doing dishes or cleaning up.

So Jonah runs away. God came to Jonah and called him to serve, saying, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Joh 1:2). And Jonah shuddered at the idea. He ran away from the Lord – at least, he thought he could – and headed in the complete opposite direction, as far as he could get. He refused the Lord’s call. He wasn’t excited about the message. And he didn’t care about the people of Nineveh.

A little background on Nineveh might be helpful in our understanding. Jonah lived during the time of Jeroboam II, who ruled over the Northern Kingdom of Israel shortly before it was destroyed by the Assyrians. Already, however, the Assyrians posed a threat to Israel and presented them with problems and unrest. Not to mention, Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh represented the pride, the power, and the brutality of the kingdoms of this world at their worst. The prophet Nahum’s entire book tells the feeling of dread which the cruel Assyrians instilled in others. With this in view, perhaps you can understand why Jonah wanted so desperately to escape this call and why he ran away. This was a call to go to the enemy, to go to the twisted and brutal people of Assyria and reach out to them with a message of condemnation! So Jonah fled. His heart was fearful. His mind was in the wrong place. And his attitude was all wrong.

So, before God’s message could work on the Ninevites, it had to do its work on Jonah. Jonah, who probably didn’t think he also needed to change. The Lord cut off Jonah’s flight by sending a great storm on the sea as Jonah was on his way to Tarshish. Jonah knew why this was happening already. Jonah knew that the only way to save that ship was to throw him off of it. And although the sailors originally refused, eventually they had no other option. They threw him overboard, and the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah.

It was in the belly of that fish, in the depths of the sea, where Jonah finally got his life straightened out… mostly. From inside the fish, hidden in the depths of the sea, Jonah prayed to the Lord. I find it interesting that Jonah tried to run from God but couldn’t. Then, when he was even farther, even more hidden – humanly speaking – it’s there that he turned to the Lord. Because he knew, all along, you can’t run and hide from God. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry… To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit… Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” (Joh 2:2,6,8,9). After bringing Jonah to an ultimate low, after removing all the things that Jonah trusted in – his home, his way of life, his very freedom of movement – then Jonah remembered the one thing that could never be taken away: his Lord. He remembered that it was God who remained with him even in the deepest lows of life. And even in these deep lows, he still trusted that God cared and could do something about his condition!

Jonah learned the hard way that God is concerned with every individual. He learned the hard way that the message of God can change even the most stubborn of hearts – his own included! And if we are going to take this same message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to the world, we first need to realize that we need it too – just as much as anyone else. I too, live a sinful life. I, just as much as the Ninevites, deserve God’s punishment for my own sin. And if I don’t take this message to heart, then I’ll end up just like Jonah – thinking too highly of my own worthiness, and condemning all those I consider “too sinful” for God’s Message of grace. I am a sinner. Yet, I am a sinner who has heard God’s Message, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). I am sorry for my sins. And I marvel at the fact that God reached out to me with forgiveness and love! He reaches out to you too! “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).

It’s this same, powerful message of God which Jonah finally took to Nineveh – after God caused the fish to spit him out on dry land. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’” (Joh 3:1). This time, Jonah went. He knew the power of God. He knew the power of God’s message. And he knew the mercy of God. “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh…. Jonah began proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’” (Joh 1:4). How do you think that worked out? A Hebrew prophet from a small nation that was frankly just a doormat in the way of the Assyrians proclaimed their destruction by his God. But, as stern as this warning was, it carried with it an inherent reason for hope. If God had decided to destroy the city for its wickedness, and if there was no hope that he might relent, there would be no real purpose for Jonah’s message. So, the message is not just a threat of punishment, but also a reason for hoping that God would spare the Ninevites!

The Lord’s message, proclaimed by Jonah, quickly worked in the hearts of the people. They believed God. They believed that his message was true, and they produced outward actions of repentance which had taken place in their hearts. They put on sackcloth – an ancient symbol of mourning over sin. Even the king himself believed the message, took it seriously, and hoped for God’s mercy. “Let everyone call urgently on God,” He said. “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Joh 3:9-10).

Wow, if God’s Message can change the hearts of a people like the Ninevites of Assyria, it truly can work wonders. And if God relents and has mercy on a people as brutal as the Assyrians, how great is his love for all people! Jonah knew this from the beginning. He even states it in the very next chapter. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Joh 4:2). He knew this all along! He knew of God’s mercy and the power of his Message. But his attitude was all wrong. Jonah didn’t care about the Ninevites. And, perhaps he thought that God would relent anyway, perhaps sending someone else to preach that powerful Message! It’s amazing how attitude changes everything.

Do you see the power of God’s Message?! Do you see the amazing grace and love of God for all people! Even when the message sounds harsh, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Joh 3:4). “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). Even when the message sounds harsh, it carries with it God’s power and God’s love. God says he doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt 3:9). God says that he “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Let’s not prevent anyone from hearing this Message. Let’s not underestimate the power and love of God to change hearts and lives and actions.

Think about it this way. You wouldn’t withhold from someone life-saving information simply because you know it will be a hard pill to swallow. That would be like a doctor knowing without a doubt that his patient has cancer, but he doesn’t want to share the news because it would be hard for his patient to hear. Even if there is a treatment with a very high success rate. Yet sometimes we do this! You and I know, without a doubt, that everyone in this world has a terminal illness. It’s called sin. You and I also know that there is a treatment for this terminal illness that has a 100% success rate. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Rm 3:23). Why would we want to withhold that from people?!

Why? I think sometimes it’s because we have a hard time believing it ourselves. Either we don’t realize the terminal nature of our own sinfulness, and so devalue the Message of God. Or, we don’t trust the gift of God, and so we despair in our sinfulness. I think, sometimes, it’s because we doubt the efficacy of the Message. Sadly, we feel that the effectiveness of the message is contingent upon us. But it’s Jesus’ Mission we are on, and Jesus’ Message we proclaim. No one was ever saved because John made baptism what it is. No one was ever saved because Paul gave his message power. It’s God who saves through Baptism. It’s God who gives his message power. It’s God who works in people’s hearts to change lives and save. And, if you are worried about people rejecting what you have to say, remember it’s not you they are rejecting, nor your Message. It’s Jesus they are rejecting and his Message. So share the good news of forgiveness and leave it in God’s hands!

Jonah knew the compassion of God. And he knew the power of God’s Message. Sadly, his attitude was all wrong. But we read two other parts of Scripture today where people had very different attitudes. As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew and called to them, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mk 1:17). “At once they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1 :18). Jesus went a little farther and called again to James and John. “Come, follow me!” “And they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mk 1:20). Two others, in the epistle reading. God said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Ac 13:2). And the two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went right to work, sailing to the island of Cyprus. When they arrived, “The proclaimed the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues” (Ac 13:5).

It’s interesting how attitude changes everything. It’s much easier to do something you are excited about rather than something you do begrudgingly. Ask me to do chores when I have a proper attitude – out of love for my wife and family, and because it is a way to take care of our home, and I’ll gladly do it. Perhaps I’ll take it one step farther, ask me to do something I inherently enjoy – like building a swing for the kids, or changing the oil on the car – and I’ll jump at the opportunity! All these things are needed and beneficial for the family. The difference is attitude.

Brothers and sisters, there’s nothing needed more than the life-saving Message of the Gospel. It’s a message of love, even when we may have to use harsh words. It’s a message that’s powerful! Look at the hearts it has changed in Jonah chapter 3! It’s a powerful message of love that you get to share!

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Mission Minded: Clear in your calling (Jan 17, 2021)

February 9, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Mission Minded: Clear in your calling

John 1:43-51

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Today we are beginning a Sermon Series which will run through the Epiphany season up to the season of Lent. So, about 5 Sundays. Epiphany is a season of the Church Year in which we focus on the revealing of who Jesus is and what he came to do. And as we do that, as we see who Jesus is, we also learn about who we are as Christians – as followers of Christ. As followers of Christ we are to be Mission Minded. That’s the overall theme for these next 5 weeks. Mission Minded. This is also a timely encouragement as we go through a transition of daughtering a congregation in Waco and set a vision and goals for us here in Temple. Let’s do so as Mission Minded followers of Christ.

So, with that overall theme in mind, to be Mission Minded, you first have to be Clear in your Calling – and yes, I get the irony of that as I am currently deliberating two calls and seeking clarity. But let’s look into this reading. Because if you are going to be doing mission work – if you are going to be mission minded – you need to first be Clear in your own Calling. So today we are going to do that by looking at 1) Who am I, that I should be called? 2) Who is he, that I should follow his call? 3) Who are they, that I should care about calling them?

First, who am I? Jesus encountered a great variety of people in his ministry. And even if we only look at the ones he specifically called to be his disciples, there’s great variety. Are you a Simon, Andrew, James or John – the fishermen, the blue-collar workers of the group? Hard workers, dedicated to whatever you do, but perhaps don’t think you have the particular gifts or talents needed to do “real” mission work. Jesus called these kinds of down to earth people and considered them valuable to the work of his kingdom. Are you a Nathanael – one who seems to be well versed in the Scriptures and clear in his understanding of what they say? Jesus called these kinds of people to test the words of others and open up the Scriptures to many. Are you a Matthew – a tax collector burdened with guilt, perhaps feeling as if he didn’t belong. Jesus called these kinds of people to. He called them to receive the forgiveness that comes from him and cherish that. He gave them a ministry which understands those who struggle with similar burdens.

The point is, there is no one “right” kind of Christian. Look through the pages of Scriptures, follow the stories of the different people in the Bible – not one of them were perfect. Every one of them had unique gifts. In fact, I’ll bet that you can find someone in Scripture that is very much like you – sharing your strengths and weaknesses, gifts and abilities. I’ll bet that you can find someone in Scripture that is going through something you are going through. And God used them all. He called individuals just like you – whoever you are – to follow him and serve him in very unique ways.

So be clear in your calling by understanding who you are. Yes, I am a sinful human being who doesn’t deserve to be called. But Jesus called me because he loves me. He called you because he loves you and made you deserving by removing all your guilt and sin and paying for it in full. Sure, you may not have the gifts of this other person that you think you need, but what gifts do you have that God has uniquely blessed you with. What gifts is God equipping you with through the Spirit, and how do they fit in with ministry at your church and in your circles? Be clear in your calling that Jesus called YOU, just as you are. “We ought to thank God for YOU, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God CHOSE YOU as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit… He called YOU to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thes 2:13-14) with all your unique gifts.

God called you because he wanted you and your gifts for his Mission. Are we clear on that? Now, we have to be clear on the one who is calling. Who is he, that I should follow him? This is the very question that Nathanael had in our Bible reading today. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45). These believers considered it important to know their Scriptures, especially as they looked expectantly for the Savior God promised. When considering who Jesus is, Philip tested him according to the Scriptures. Does he fulfill the prophecies of the 5 books of Moses – Genesis through Deuteronomy? Yes! Does he fulfill the prophecies of all the prophets? From the well-known ones like Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to those lesser-known ones like Micah and Malachi? The answer is yes! Jesus is not only the fulfillment of Moses’ promise of a greater mediator (Dt 18:15), but he also fulfills perfectly all of God’s promises throughout the Scriptures. Philips knowledge of this fulfillment, of course, was not yet as complete as it would become, but it was sufficient to see that in Jesus God’s promises were coming true.

But something caught Nathanael’s attention that just didn’t seem to jibe. “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45). “Nazareth! Can anything god come from there?” Nathanael asked (Jn 1:46). He doesn’t immediately share Philip’s enthusiasm for this new-found Messiah. Nathanael hears one word with which he can find fault in Philip’s confession. “Nazareth.” The whole land of Galilee was despised as “half-breeds” by the “pure” Judeans. But Nathanael himself was a Galilean. Perhaps his objection, then, lies in the fact that he was familiar with this village, and the Messianic prophecies of the Scriptures, but he knew of no prophecy that said the Savior would come from Nazareth. And he was right. Philip hears the objection but does not counterattack with a cleverly designed argument. His response is simple. His mission work is simple. “Come and see” (Jn 1:46). And with this simple calling, he places his friend’s doubting soul into the hands of the loving Savior. Philip knows that when his friend sees Jesus and has the chance to examine him for himself, the Spirit would work on Nathanael’s heart just as he had Philip’s.

How often have we found fault with Jesus over just one objection? Maybe you are faced with a life-threatening disease, and you are fearful. Maybe you are faced with a difficult decision you have to make – one that will impact your life in a big way – and you are anxious about it. And you start to question God with this objection. But search through the Scriptures and find one passage where God gives you the right to be afraid, or anxious, or object to him. There is none. There is nowhere in Scripture where God says, “Yeah, you should be really afraid.” Or, “Whoa, this is really too big for me to handle, you should be anxious.” There is nothing like this. Sure, there are times when we might be perplexed. How does one from Nazareth fulfill the Scriptures that say the Savior would come from Bethlehem. Well, leave it to God. He saw fit that a census should be taken right at the time when Jesus would be born. So Mary and Joseph travelled and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Or, how could Jesus possibly be God our Savior when he clearly died on the cross. Well, leave it to God to remain just – punishing sin – while also being the one who justifies by raising Jesus from the dead. If we just listen to Jesus’ calling to “Come and see.” If we would sit at his feet and give him the chance to reveal himself, then you will see. Then you will see clearly and believe who he is.

That’s what happened with Nathanael that day. Yes, it was Philip who called Nathanael to come and see, but really it was Jesus calling him. “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (Jn 1:47). “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked (Jn 1:48). “I saw you while you were under the fig tree before Philip called you” (Jn 1:48). In fact, “I chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and called you through the gospel to do the good works I have prepared in advance for you to do.” Jesus says that about every one of you. Then Nathanael was clear in who was calling. He knew who Jesus was. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (Jn 1:49).

To be sure, Nathanael would see much greater things than that – greater things than Jesus’ omniscience. “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51). No doubt this is a reference to Jacob’s dream at Bethel – when he saw in his dream a stairway to heaven. In Jesus, heaven is brought down to earth, to us. And in Jesus, sinners are assured of their calling to their heavenly home through the One who is “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Jesus is the connection – the “gateway” if you will – between heaven and earth, between you and your God.

So, you are clear in your calling of who you are – one called by God to salvation, with a unique place in life and unique gifts to use for his mission. You are clear in who the one calling you is – the Savior who fulfills all Scripture, your one way to heaven. And you can build on that clarity by learning more about him from Scripture. Finally, be clear in who you are called to call. Who are they, that I should care about calling them?

Andrew was one of the first disciples whom Jesus called. The first person Andrew reached out to was his brother. Why? Because he cared about him. There are people you care about as well. Your own brothers and sisters, friends, and relatives. You know you should be calling out to these people because you care about them. But there are other groups too. What about acquaintances, strangers, and passersby? The “sign guy” who dances out on 31st. Or the guy who walks up and down 31st waving at cars – sometimes a little too close to the road for comfort. His name is Sergei. I point out these two because anyone who frequents 31st street has probably seen them. But there are others: Grocery store workers, bank tellers, people at the gym. Who are they that I should care about calling them? I think most of us are fairly indifferent about them. And then what about this last group of people. What about those people who have hurt you, or people living a lifestyle that you don’t agree with? Who are they that I should care about calling them? Frankly, I’d rather not sometimes.

Jesus encountered many of these kinds of people as well. Ones that people were indifferent about and ones that people would rather avoid. The sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. Or Zacchaeus, who probably gave into greed as he collected taxes. A woman who reached out to touch Jesus’ cloak for healing. Or a centurion seeking help for his paralyzed servant. What do all these people have in common? They are all loved by Jesus. What does anyone you meet on the street or at the store have in common – same as those who may hurt or wrong you? They are all loved by Jesus. He died for their sins. He rose that they could have life. It’s his mission to seek and to save all that are lost.

It’s his mission, but he calls you to join him on his mission. He’s called you specifically. The one who calls you is true. The ones he calls you to reach are ones he died to save.

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Mission Minded: Know your identity (Jan 10, 2021)

February 9, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Mission Minded: Know your identity

Mark 1:4-11

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There’s something that’s a little embarrassing for me to admit. But here it goes. When I was young… and by “young” I mean like high school / college age… I used to think that you needed your wedding invitation to get into a wedding. Like there was some “bouncer” at the door who would check your invitation to see if you really belong. If you did not have your invitation or it was forged – I know, right, like there’s some wedding crashing underground movement – if your invitation was deemed unacceptable, then you would be denied entry. I eventually learned. I realized that the bride and groom know me personally, so I didn’t need to prove my invitation.

But then, sometimes, there’s a party you attend that you just don’t quite feel like you belong. For example, there was a “Mad Men” themed night at the Milwaukee Art Museum I attended once, but the details got lost in translation from the friend who invited me. “Mad Men” is a TV show set in the 1960s. I’ve never seen it, so when I asked my friend simply told me to dress up like the 60s. Well, my mind went to the movie Grease, which is a very different social class from the 60s. So, when I showed up wearing a white T-shirt and a leather jacket while everyone else was wearing suits and ties, I did not feel like I belonged. I felt like everyone was judging me just by looking at me. I was trying to be accepted by this group

In John’s day, the vast majority of people were striving to be acceptable to a certain group of people: the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious leaders of the day. And, why shouldn’t they? These religious leaders were supposed to be showing the people the way to God. To do this, there were strict rules to follow, a strict way of life to pattern yourself after, countless festivals and ceremonies to follow to the “T”. I think most people realized that it took a special class of people to follow that way of life perfectly in every way. But I think that most still strived after that life, perhaps thinking that if I can be at least this good, then I will be acceptable.

But, deep down – though it may have been suppressed – there was still evil and darkness clinging to every one of them. Why else would there have to be sacrifices for sin and offerings for guilt each and every day. And as people battled every day with this need to be acceptable, all while knowing they aren’t – as evidenced by their need to sacrifice – they became run down, perhaps even to the point of despair. But then, another kind of message hit the scene. A message that sounded eerily familiar – like a well known voice from the past. John’s message was not, “Do this, and you will be accepted.” But rather, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:2). It sounded a lot like the message of the prophets from of old. A message of repentance, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). It was a welcomed and refreshing change! Guilt wearied people came out in droves to hear this messenger – to listen to this message from God that echoed the voice of the prophets from long ago! And, when some came out to where John was baptizing who had a different idea of acceptance, John called them out on it. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers!” “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Mt 3:7). Because, according to their own theology, they were already acceptable by their own works – by the things they had done.

Clearly there’s a difference. You can’t earn your salvation through your works and also rely on the Messiah for salvation. You can’t hope I’m good enough, and also place your hope in the One who has done all things well. You can’t deny the condemning effect of sin and the separation from God it brings while also claiming true faith in your Savior. He either is your one and only hope of salvation, or you’ve blinded yourself into believing that you are alright on your own.

So, which is it? Do you need the Savior that God reveals in Scripture to make you acceptable? Or are you content to downplay your sinfulness and see where that gets you? Do you confess that sin, your own and that of the whole human race is the reason for all that is wrong with the world and the eventual result of death… Do you confess that death is what your own sin deserves – not just physical death in the grave, but also spiritual death in hell? Do you understand and acknowledge that your sins make you unacceptable to God who is holy and just?

If so, then how do we dare even enter his presence here? That’s what we are here to do, right? To join together and stand in God’s presence? To worship and praise him? Yet we just acknowledged that we are sinners who cannot stand in his presence… so how did we get in here?

Not by our own merit, I’ll tell you that. But by Jesus’ merit. Jesus, who was not only born in the flesh for you, but now also baptized for you is your key to being accepted by God and getting into a place like this and a place much better than this. John didn’t see the need for Jesus to be baptized. And, in a way, he was right. Jesus certainly didn’t have any sin to wash away – any need for repentance. But he did come for a need. Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Then, something spectacular happened. “He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mk 1:10-11).

Jesus baptism was not only for himself, but also for us. His baptism is not merely a symbol of the blessing in our baptism, but he is also the source of blessing it contains. Because Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, you and I are washed clean and made righteous through baptism. So just as Jesus received the Spirit in baptism, we also receive the Spirit through ours. And as the Father says of Jesus, so he says of you at your baptism. “You are my son, You are my daughter, whom I love; and because of Jesus, with you I am well pleased.” The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the Romans: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rm 6:3-4).

That’s why we begin and end every worship service with the sign of the cross – to remind you of your baptism. That’s why I make the sign of the cross when announcing the forgiveness of sins, because you live a new life through baptism. That’s why I’ve been dying to move this baptismal font for quite some time now, and finally figured out a good spot for it. Because I want everyone in this place to know – myself included – the only way we stand acceptable before a righteous God is by the righteousness he gives us through his Means of Grace – Baptism, and the proclamation of the Word. Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid. You are welcome here in your Father’s house!

I also want you to know that because you are baptized and forgiven children of God, you are also welcome into a much more holy place as well – your Father’s house in heaven! And understand that heaven is not a place where you float around on clouds as a spiritual being strumming on harps and singing all day. That probably seems all too distant and intangible. Heaven is real. And you will be really there, in the flesh! Yes, just as Jesus rose with flesh and bones that he showed his disciples, you too will rise with your very own body! Your eyes, your ears, nose and mouth. Your hands, and your abilities… probably even more abilities! The Bible says, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rm 6:3,5). Even though you will still die physically, you will never die spiritually. And even though you die physically, you will be physically raised to life when Jesus comes again and creates a new heaven and a new earth!

So I hope you see today that you have a very real Jesus who gives very real gifts! He gives these real, tangible gifts because we are a real, tangible Church. He connects his gift of salvation with something you can see and touch as the cool water trickles down your head. He brings about the gift of salvation by restoring not just your spirit, but also your body – when you will be raised with him on the last day! He makes you acceptable in every way – body and spirit – so that you can stand confidently before God here in this place and one day in heaven.

But let’s not wait to use these gifts. Let’s live even now, every day in the newness of life he’s given us! After heeding the call to repentance and receiving God’s gift of salvation through Baptism, the people asked John, “What should we do then?” (Lk 3:10). And John answered them. To the crowd he said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Lk 3:11). To the tax collectors, John said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Lk 3:13). To the soldiers, he said, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay” (Lk 3:14).

Faith that knows it’s salvation through Christ is not content to just rest on that. It tirelessly lives that salvation even now! Strives to show others the acceptance which Christ won. We see that with the Jailor who had a close encounter with death, and perhaps felt its severity. Who knew his unworthiness. Who then collapsed at the feet of Paul and Silas, trembling to ask, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Do? Nothing. The replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31). And by that salvation through faith, a change was made. The Jailor was a new man! “At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole household” (Ac 16:33-34).

God has accepted you through Christ. You are a citizen of heaven. How will you share that joy, even now? What wounds can you wash? What needs can you feed? What joy can you share? God has welcomed you into his house and shared his very real gifts with you. Go be his Church and share them with the world.

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Worship like Wise Men (January 3, 2021)

February 9, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Worship like Wise Men

Matthew 2:1-12

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Want to up your worship game in the new year? Want to overcome obstacles that seem to always come up and prevent you from sitting at your Savior’s feet? Want to learn how to give generously without anxiety over the gifts that you are giving? Want to leave here renewed, refreshed so that you also can live lovingly? Well, today we are going to take a look at the Magi and learn from them so that you too can Worship like Wise Men! But rather than looking for a list of steps that these Magi followed, I want you to figure out what their purpose was. What drove them forward and motivated them to worship the way they did – to overcome obstacles, give generously, and live lovingly? Figure that out, and you too can worship like Wise Men.

The first obstacle to be overcome was distance. These Magi likely came from Babylon and traveled hundreds of miles to get to Bethlehem. It likely would have been a journey of many weeks if not a number of months. And for what? They knew very little about their destination. Only that they were seeking “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). And it’s not even that they sought to gain something from him, or create some kind of an alliance like many quest takers are seeking. Why did they go? “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2). And even though distance was the first obstacle to overcome, we don’t hear anything about their perilous journey. The point isn’t how they got there, or what kind of obstacles they needed to overcome. Only that they got there. And that’s how Matthew starts this chapter; in a very matter of fact kind of way. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’” (Mt 2:1-2).

Although distance is often the first obstacle we think of, it was not the first. Nor was it even the most difficult to overcome. Darkness was. No, not the darkness of night. Spiritual darkness. First of all, how on earth did the Magi even know to connect this strange new star with a king born hundreds of miles away? Well, God was working behind the scenes. Most likely this is all thanks to Daniel who lived long ago – a captive of Babylon – and yet rose to high ranks. He did so not by concealing his faith, but by faithfully living his faith and trusting God. In fact, Daniel was probably a high ranking Magi long ago who taught those under him about his God and all the prophecies of the Messiah. And this light of the gospel glowed faintly in a distant land until the star appeared! And these Magi, who were not in darkness, connected it to Balaam’s prophecy from way back in the time of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Nu 24:17).

As amazing as it is that God kept a flicker of the Gospel alive in a far off land, the Magi were probably even more astonished of how Jerusalem in Judea seemed to be in the dark about their new king. They came expecting a city all a buzz, but what they found was a city in the dark. The people of Israel weren’t watching and waiting, focusing on the coming Messiah, and so they missed him. But Herod knew that the men who studied the Old Testament would be able to find a glimmer of light to the question of “where?” “’In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: “But 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 2:5-6). So, they knew the answer as to where. Unfortunately, they skipped over a phrase in Scripture and so were still in the dark as to who. If they had read the whole verse, they would have known that “his origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Mic 5:2). And if they had made the connection between this newborn child and his eternal origins, they would have seen him for who he really was, God in the flesh – their Savior from sin. But since they didn’t honor the Word, they were still in the dark.

Darkness can cloud our hearts and minds if we are not continually in the Word as well – reading all of Scripture – not cutting out parts we don’t like. Unfortunately, we look in many other places for answers, because we forget about or don’t like the answers right here in God’s Word. Answers for how to get over grief. Answers for how to deal with temptations and addictions. Answers to relieve guilt. Is there any greater relief from guilt than finding the Savior born for you? Is there any greater power over addictions and temptation than is found in the Shepherd who guides and cares for you? Is there any greater comfort than being cared for by the one who is the beginning and the end? We lose our focus on our Savior and plunge ourselves into darkness – wandering aimlessly, distant from our Savior. Yet, just as the stars seem to shine brightest against the black sky of the new moon, so it seems that the light of God’s Word shines brightest in our lives when things appear darkest.

So, refocus on your Savior, and Worship like the Wise Men who had their goal clearly in focus. They didn’t let the darkness of those around them dissuade them. They didn’t let distance become a factor. Nor did the distraction of Herod’s evil intensions prevent them from completing their journey. They had their eyes focused on the Savior, not the obstacles. They overcame obstacles because their Savior was their focus. Guiding them, leading them, and strengthening them.

They finally arrived and did what they traveled so far and long to do. Not get anything from him. Rather, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt 2:11). The specifics of their gifts don’t really matter all that much – how much they are worth or what they are used for. What matters is that they knew who this Savior was, what he came to do, and they generously gave from whatever they had out of thanks and praise to their newborn king.

But there were other gifts given that day as well. Make no mistake about it, the gold the Magi gave was not as precious as the faith that presented it. The incense, valuable as it was, did not compare to the value of their prayers which ascended as incense. And the myrrh, often used to embalm bodies, may have been used years later to embalm Jesus. By his death, we live!

What a sight that must have been to see these adult men, truly wise men, bow down and worship this Child! Standing was out of the question. On knees in reverence reserved for high-ranking persons or divine beings. And what might they have said?! We recently heard the worship and praise of Simeon and Anna. Perhaps their praise would have been marveling at the prophecies fulfilled: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Nu 24:17). “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Is 60:3).

Perhaps the lack of generosity in our own worship and thanks comes from a lack of understanding of who we are and what we need. We might see an hour or two spent with our Savior as an hour or two that could have been used resting up, preparing a special meal, or earning some extra income. Yes, we need rest, food, and a livelihood. But we often forget about our greatest need. Remember, there is more than meets the eye when Christians gather together for worship. Jesus himself is present in a way he isn’t with us otherwise (Mt 18:20), and the angels are present in a way they aren’t with us otherwise (1 Cor 11:10). Our wellbeing isn’t just a physical affair; we’re not just a collection of atoms and chemicals. It’s also a spiritual affair. We are body AND soul. Soul-health is just as important – more important – to overall health as body-health is. And let me tell you, just as a pandemic threatens the bodily health of many many people, sin is a pandemic that has already infected every one of us. And if we do not regularly seek the healing Word of Jesus, our worship and service will become hollow and empty, if it even exists at all.

When we recognize the darkness of our sin, the light found in Christ will bring us the joy experienced by the Magi and do away with yawns of indifference in our own worship. For us too, the Lord may sometimes increase our eagerness to find our Savior by “removing the star,” so to speak. He may create a need to bring us back to him. Then, he lovingly fills the need he himself created, and our hearts swell with joy, our hands eager to generously give, because all our needs are met in him.

So refocus on your Savior and Worship like Wise Men. Your Savior will swell your heart to rejoice at the revealing of salvation to all nations. Your Savior will use your lips to speak his praise and proclaim the goodness of his love to those still in the dark. Your Savior will generously provide for all your needs so that you can generously give from your possessions, your abilities, and your wealth.

The final thing we see in this section, is how the Wise Men worshiped by living lovingly. It was God who lovingly protected them, and more importantly his Son, so that Jesus might carry out the mission for which he came. “Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Mt 2:12). This may have added many more miles to their long and difficult journey. Yet the Magi didn’t consider this command a burden, because their hearts were so in tune with the God of truth. When you see your life as a way to worship and honor your Savior, the extra mile you go for a friend, the shirt off your back for someone in need will never seem a burden. Just another way to worship God.

Herod tried to fool the Magi, but he couldn’t fool God. And those who live according to God’s Word – who are in tune with his will – will never be caught a fool. This child truly was the King of the Jews – and of those who are included in Israel by faith! Jesus’ childhood, his baptism, the miracles of his early ministry all show him to be true God in the flesh, the fulfillment of the prophecies, and the giver of life!

If only we could always see all of God’s commands in the light of his love, and gladly obey them – even if for no other reason than to honor Jesus. Yet his commands are more than that. His commands are for your life – and not just eternal life in heaven, either. Obeying God’s commands is good for you even here on earth. Afterall, why would your loving Father command something that was not good for you.

So we focus on Christ for a new way to live. Anyone who has been led to the Christ and whom God has made wise to see him as their only Redeemer will find himself on new roads in life. Don’t be distracted by the details about the star, the Magi, Herod, or the treasures. While these things are all integral parts of the account, notice the ultimate goal of the Magi and the focus of their quest. It was Jesus. With a focus on Jesus, obstacles were overcome. With a focus on Jesus, they generously gave what they had planned ahead of time to give. With a focus on Jesus their lives were fulfilled, and they could live a life driven by his love.

So, want to Worship like Wise Men? Just focus your life on Jesus!

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Are we the ones? (Dec 31, 2020)

January 2, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Are we the ones?

2 Samuel 12:1-13

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We have been given such a gift in confession. Sadly, it’s a gift we may be hesitant to use at times. Like the apprehension before a live saving surgery we are often filled with anxiety before confessing our sinfulness – perhaps even thinking it better to just live with the burden of guilt rather than acknowledge what we have done. In today’s service we are going to focus on God’s gift of confession and forgiveness. To do this, we are going to read through the four parts of confession from Luther’s Small Catechism, paired with hymns and Scripture readings – Scripture being the foundation of our faith. After we gain this better understanding and appreciation for Confession and Absolution – the Forgiveness of Sins – we will then have a general confession and forgiveness, followed by the reception of the Lord’s Supper – the Sacrament assuring us of the administering of God’s forgiveness.

So, are we the ones who need to confess? Are we the kind of people that confession is for? We need only to consider the Ten Commandments to see that yes, we are lawbreakers. We are the ones who need confession. This evening, we will hear from Scripture, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (Jas 2:10-11).

It all starts with temptation. Eyes that wander. Hearts that want. Egos that are proud or selfish. And already having stepped into sin, there is opportunity to stop. But so often we wade in a little more, just a little bit farther. Afterall, what’s one more tiny step? What’s the harm of one step further. Well, we will see what the harm is when we read about the aftermath of David’s sin with Bathsheba. He had so many opportunities to turn away from sin, to resist temptation and return to the Lord. When he first caught a glimpse of Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop he could have looked away – gone to another part of his rooftop. But he let his gaze linger. And when lusting turned to coveting, instead of inquiring more about her, he could have forgotten about her. And before coveting turned into physical sin, rather than summoning her, he could have gone to God in prayer for forgiveness and strength. Instead, as he let his eyes wander, he let his heart wander from his Lord.

Sin had been committed. Multiple sins already. But as if that isn’t enough, how much more heartache and trouble do we often find as we try to cover over our sinfulness and hide it from others. How much guilt and shame could we save ourselves if we simply go immediately to the one who already knows?! Yet, we see David compounding sins as he tries to cover it up. He lied to one of his soldiers. He tried to deceive him. Then he purposefully had him killed. What kind of holes have we dug ourselves simply because we were blinded by our sinfulness and frantically trying to cover up our guilt? King David later wrote in the Psalms, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Ps 32:3-4).

And what is probably most appalling is that somehow we still think it right to become enraged in righteous anger against the sins we see in other people’s lives. Trying to pick out the fleck of dust in someone else’s eye, while we have a plank sticking out of our own. When God’s prophet Nathan told David a story about a rich man, with large herds, taking the only lamb of his poor neighbor to prepare a meal for a guest, David had the audacity to be enraged at this man’s sin. “As surely as the LORD lives,” David said, “the man who did this must die!” (2 Sam 12:5). It’s the same outrage we might have against others. “How could someone steal packages from another person?!” “How could someone drive drunk and put others’ lives in danger?!” “How could someone rape another?!” Be enraged about sin, yes! But are we enraged about our own sins? “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die!… because he did such a thing and had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5-6).

You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7) was Nathan’s conviction of David – the LORD’s conviction through his prophet Nathan. We are the ones guilty of sin. The law cuts past any excuse, any rationalizations, any clever word games. We know it’s true. We know we can’t hide it from the One who knows all things. “Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes?” (2 Sam 12:9) the LORD asks David. “Why” is the impossible question we cannot answer. Why, in spite of all God’s goodness, God’s grace, God’s abundant blessings, did you do this? Why? Because I’m a sinner.

After the striking accusation that must have hit like a greatsword through the chest, David confessed: “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam 12:13). God waits for each of us to confess and acknowledge our sins in this same way. God waits with longing to forgive and heal and restore the hearts of all who turn to him in repentance.

And see how immediate the forgiveness is! “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ Nathan replied, ‘The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.’” (2 Sam 12:13). There’s no verses in between with long drawn out pleas for mercy. There’s no requirements Nathan lays out for David to fulfill. The forgiveness is immediate! How closely tied the confession and the proclamation of forgiveness are! God is always ready to forgive the repentant sinner. If only we would be more ready and willing to confess our wrongs – knowing, trusting that we will always find forgiveness from God! David said nothing to extenuate his wrongdoing or minimize his guilt. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps 51:7-10).

Are we the ones who are guilty? Yes. Are we the ones whom the Lord forgives? Yes. The promise has already been made by David’s time. The promise has already been fulfilled in our time! The LORD kept his promise to sacrifice the Lamb of God to take away the sin and rebellion of the whole world. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Is 1:18).

We see how immediate and willing to forgive God is in the account of David, which we will read. We will also see how completely and willing to forgive God is in the Gospel reading – the prodigal son. I’ll just highlight the last few verses of that reading, but as I do, I want you to note 3 things. Does the son have to earn favor or is he given grace? Is he treated as an outcast or given the full rights as a son? Is there disappointment when he returns or celebrating?

The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Lk 15:21-24). I’ll also note that while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him – because he was looking for him, eager for him to return! His father saw him, and already then, before a word was said, was filled with compassion for him.

Brothers and sisters, Are we the ones? Yes, we are guilty of sin. But we are also the ones whom God has forgiven through Jesus his Son! And, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). Let’s hear from Scripture, sing of God’s goodness and mercy, confess our sinfulness and fully trust in the proclamation of forgiveness.

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Gone so soon? (Dec 27, 2020)

January 2, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Gone so soon?

Luke 2:25-40

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When is a good time to take down your Christmas decorations? Have you given it any thought? I know for many it’s within days after Christmas – mainly because of the convenience of having some extra time off. In years past I’ve found it shocking to see how quickly Christmas disappears from my neighborhood. But what would be some other good times or other reasons for putting away Christmas decorations when you do? At my house, we try to leave them up for 12 days after Christmas. That’s the actual 12 days of Christmas afterall. But our reasoning for doing that is much more than because of a simple song. We leave our decorations up for 12 days because on January 6th is when we celebrate the Magi coming to see Jesus – the Gentile believers!

Whenever you put away your decorations, and whatever your reasoning, it somehow always seems like Christmas is gone so soon after the 25th. I mean, we build up to Christmas for weeks, even months ahead of time, but then once it has come, it seems like it’s gone in a flash. And I think part of that is because for those who do not know the real miracle of Christmas, it is done. Perhaps even with a sense of relief, “Well, I’m glad that’s over for another year.” But for you and me, those who know the real miracle – the Greatest Gift God has ever given – Christmas never really ends. In fact, it has just begun.

You can sense that anticipation and relief from a man named Simeon in the Scripture reading today. But it wasn’t a relief that the burden of Christmas was over. It’s a relief the Christmas has finally arrived, and the burden he previously bore was now at an end. You hear that relief in the words that Simeon spoke after holding the infant Jesus in his arms. “Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace” (Lk 2:29). It’s the same words we typically sing after receiving the body and blood of our Savior in the Lord’s Supper. But what is this relief from? Why is it that Simeon burst out this proclamation in praise to God? Why couldn’t Anna help but give thanks to God and speak about this child to all who would listen? Why is it that the Child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him? Certainly it was more than just Simeon seeing the Messiah so that he could now die. Certainly it was more than just the Christ child arriving – Christmas is here – now that that’s over I can depart in peace.

Taking a second look at this text, you can see that there is a strong emphasis on keeping the law. The very reason Mary and Joseph were at the temple that day was to keep the law which required Mary to be purified after childbirth and Jesus to be presented to God and “bought back” / “redeemed” from him because he was the firstborn son of this family. Mary and Joseph came to keep the law. Simeon too, spoke not only of being dismissed in peace, but gave the reason for that peace. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations” (Lk 2:30-31). This Child was God’s plan for the salvation from the burden of the law. Anna, spoke about the child “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). Redemption from the Law. Finally, this section concludes by saying, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth” (Lk 2:39). This whole event revolves around people striving to keep the God’s Law, as required. And yet, this whole account also emphasizes the impossibility of such a task, with its words of “salvation for the nations” and “the redemption of Jerusalem.”

I can’t help but tie in our Sunday morning Bible Study here, because we are talking about this very thing – the purpose of the Old Testament Ceremonial Law. Yes, God commanded it. Yes, he expected it to be kept. But the sacrifices themselves could never purify, atone from sin, or redeem anyone. It was the heart that God wanted. King David wrote in the Psalms, “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 you, God, will not despise… Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offering offered whole” (Ps 51:16-19). In fact, those repeated sacrifices did not soothe the sinner’s conscience, but rather stabbed it awake. The very nature of the repeated sacrifices clearly indicated that such sacrifices could never take away sin. But they pointed ahead to the one who could! The Lamb of God would come to take away the sins of the world. The firstborn Son of God – the only begotten Son of God – who was just redeemed at the temple with an offering of two doves would be the sacrifice to redeem all people of every nation! That is why, for a man like Simeon who waited for Christmas with great anticipation, and a woman like Anna who spent her days and nights at the temple – for them, Christmas was not over. Far from it. Christmas has just begun! And the peace that Christmas brings, has now come to stay.

This isn’t how all the world views Christmas, however. For some, Christmas is just another holiday. For some they put out all the decorations and spread Christmas cheer, but completely miss the first 6 letters of Christmas. They miss Christ and the cheer he brings! And although they still reach out in love and exchange gifts, they miss the Greatest Gift that God so lovingly gives. For them, Christmas is already over. It’s a relief that they will no longer be bombarded by the holiday ads, and they can put their house back to how it is for the majority of the year. And although they’ve celebrated, they’ve completely missed the reason.

So how do we make sure people do not miss it? How do we put Christ back in Christmas? Well, I think we have to start with the need for Christmas. And this applies to you and me as well. This is something we could use a refresher on every year. Something we need to be emphasizing with our children. Not just who came on Christmas, but why he came.

The fact is, we are still under the Law of God. You can perhaps recall the 10 Commandments. And even if you have them memorized, read through them again. “You shall have no other gods.” “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” “Honor your father and your mother” – this includes all those in authority God has placed over you. “You shall not murder” and remember that God equates hating to murder in Scripture. “You shall not commit adultery” which Scripture also includes lusting in that prohibition. “You shall not steal… give false testimony… or covet” (Ex 20:3-17). As we talk about Joseph and Mary doing everything required by the ceremonial Law of the Lord, can we – or anyone for that matter – really say that we have done everything required by the moral Law of the Lord – the Ten Commandments? The answer is no. Each one of us is a lawbreaker. And you know that no lawbreaker has eternal life in him. “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rm 3:20).

Are you starting to feel the weight? Are you starting to feel the burden and guilt of your sins? Taking some time and going through the commandments, really contemplating “How have I broken this command in my thoughts? In my words? And in my actions?” “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” (Ps 130:3). Now, like Simeon, we too feel the weight, feel the burden or our sinfulness and are waiting with anticipation too for Christmas – for the Salvation of all nations! And having seen him, having heard the eyewitness accounts, having sung of our Savior – God’s gift of salvation – now we too can depart in peace knowing that Christmas isn’t over. No, far from it. Christmas has just begun! And one day you and I will realize the full implications of who that child is and what he has done when you are standing face to face with him in your eternal, heavenly home!

Thankfully, God does not leave us in the dark. He’s given us a light for revelation to the Gentiles! Thankfully, God does not leave us in the shame of our sinfulness. He gives us the glory of his people Israel! Yes, this child will be spoken against. Yes, through this Child God will raise up the humble and crush the proud. Yes, a sword will pierce Mary’s own soul as she watches her Son, her Savior crucified. Yet all of this would be for the redemption of all people! This child, is your redemption!

Therefore, you are a new person! While the noise of the world’s Christmas is gone so soon, the joy of our Christmas is just beginning! Because God has chosen you to be the bearers of his Son in the world! So as the world puts away its Christmas “niceties” which are merely external, let us put on Christ! Let us be seen as the heirs of salvation that we are, eager to imitate this Child who now dwells with us and in us. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly… And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” – the true spirit of Christmas.

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Are you giving or receiving? (Dec 20, 2020)

January 2, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

Are you giving or receiving this year?

Luke 1:26-38

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I grew up in a fairly large family. There were 6 of us kids. We were a family of 8. So, around this time of year my mom would take us out individually for Christmas shopping. It was our day to spend with mom during a busy time of year, but mainly, it was our time to get ready to give. We had to pick out 5 gifts, one for each sibling, plus a gift for mom and dad. It was fun! But also a lot of work getting ready to give. We had to know what our siblings wanted, find it in the store, and even when we got home the work still wasn’t done. Then we had to wrap each of the gifts and place them under the tree. I guess the final step was then on Christmas day, finding our stack of gifts under the tree and handing them all out – each to the correct sibling. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve eliminated some of the stress and cost by just picking names. Now, we each find a gift to give just one sibling, and it can be something a little nicer than small toys and trinkets because we can focus our attention and money on giving just one gift, rather than 5.

Maybe around this time of year you are thinking about another kind of giving as well. With the additional focus on Christ and his birth, and the resolutions for the New Year just around the corner, perhaps you are thinking about what you can give to God. I can give him my devotion with the nightly activities of an Advent calendar. I can give him my worship and praise at a special Christmas service. I can devote more time in the New Year to serving him. And while all of these are great things to be doing, I want to remind you, especially this time of year with a focus on giving – I want to remind you to be ready to receive from him. In the days leading up to Christ’s birth, God was getting people ready to receive the Greatest Gift – his Son, our Savior. And Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving even now. Far more important that what we give to God, is what we receive from him. So come with open ears to hear, open minds to understand, and open hearts to trust.

The first thing that God gives in the gospel account we are focusing on today is his message. He sent his messenger – that’s actually what the Greek word for “angel” means – to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). Sounds like a very pleasant greeting. But the appearance of the angel caused Mary to be greatly troubled. In fact, almost every time an angel appears in Scripture, the recipients of the messengers are greatly troubled and fearful! Just before this account we hear about an angel appearing to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, and “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear” (Luke 1:12). Just after this account, we hear about an angel appearing to the shepherds living out in the fields nearby, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Lk 2:9). Fast forward to when we hear about Jesus’ resurrection and the women at the empty tomb. “Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground” (Lk 24:4-5). Time and time again, when God’s messengers – the angels – appear, men tremble and fear, and the angels always have to start by saying, “Do not be afraid.”

Why is that? What is it about the appearance of God’s messengers that is so frightening? Well, first off, they weren’t really the scantily-clad, chubby babies that we often think of around Valentine’s Day. More accurately, they are often described as “fiery beings,” and “warriors.” So, just the appearance of one of these creatures is enough to strike fear in someone’s heart. But, more importantly, don’t miss what often accompanied the appearance of the angels. Often, they are described as bright and shining. More specifically, the “glory of the Lord” often accompanied them and shone around them. And we’ve talked about this “Glory of the Lord” quite often recently. It is the holiness and perfection of God. A holiness that instills in sinful human beings the sharp perception that “I do not belong here. I am not worthy. My sinfulness cries out against me. And God’s holy judgment is clear. I stand condemned.”

But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God’” (Lk 1:30). That “favor,” that word, is actually “xaris,” the Greek word for “grace.” Not only does the angel Gabriel tell Mary to “stop fearing,” he also give her the best reason of all for putting aside her fear completely. She has found “favor” / “grace” with God. God is reaching out to her in love. There’s nothing for her to do or give to God to earn his favor. God gives her his grace. “Receive grace!” the angel urges her, “And not only in this moment, but get ready to receive a message of unending grace:” “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” (Lk 1:31). The name “Jesus” means “the Lord saves”. And although the name Jesus was a fairly common name, this Child was no ordinary child. The full significance of his birth and his name becomes clear as the angel continues to unwrap the message.

I want to urge you to receive the message. Open a Bible and delve into it. Not with the mindset of “I’m devoting this time to God.” But with the mindset of unwrapping a gift. You certainly don’t consider it a burden or a chore to unwrap a gift. God is giving you something every time you open the Scriptures and hear his message. Yes, even the parts that are hard to read because they point out your own flaws and failures, your own inadequacies next to God who is pure and holy. This hard look into my own heart and stabbing at the sins I hold tightly to is needed for me to really hear about the gift that this Child is. He’s not just a wise teacher who will show me how to live. If I really understand my sinfulness, I already know that I am incapable of the life required to stand in the presence of a holy God. So rather than showing you how to live, his Message unwraps the perfect life of Jesus who died as a perfect sacrifice for sin, to make you holy. This “Jesus” born to Mary, is your “Jesus” also. He is “the Lord’s salvation” for you too.

If you want to delve into the Bible to receive God’s message of “favor,” of “grace,” but don’t know where to start, the book of Luke is a good place. It details the life of Jesus and all he did to save you. Once you read Luke, and have a handle on the life of Jesus, then go to Romans for an understanding of what all of this means for me. Romans is a good summary of the “doctrines,” the “teachings,” of the Scriptures. After that, there’s plenty more to explore. If you’d like, I’m happy to meet with you and give some direction on what to explore next. God has so much to give in his Word. So much for us to receive. It’s a gift we can unwrap again and again!

Let’s talk a little more, now, about the “gift” of Jesus. A lot of gifts that you might choose for someone come with a variety of features, accessories, or personalization that you can customize to meet the wants and needs of the person you are giving it to. If it’s a new pair of shoes, for example, there’s the color, the style, sometimes the brand is important, and of course the size. Or, if it’s a new drill, perhaps, there’s the type of drill, there’s battery vs. corded, there’s specific accessories that come with it, etc. The combination of all of these factors together can either make or break the gift.

In the case of Jesus, there’s really two factors that are most important. 1) He has to be God, and 2) He has to be man. Fully God and fully man in one person. And in the angel’s announcement, we see that’s exactly who Jesus is. “[Mary,] You will conceive and give birth to a son… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:31, 35).

Why is this so important? Jesus had to be truly a man so that he would be subject to the same law of God that we are subject to. Yet, he also had to be God so that he wasn’t tainted by the corruption of original sin, and so that he could keep God’s law perfectly – something that no human could ever do. Jesus also had to be truly a man so that he could face the penalty of sin in our place. “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). Yet, at the same time, he had to be fully God so that his death could pay for the sins of all people. The Bible says, “No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them – the ransom for a life is costly” (Ps 49:7-8). But the sacrifice of God himself is enough. It’s more than enough. And to prove it, Jesus did not stay dead. He rose from the dead. So, the perfect life he lived, he gives to you. And the death of the sinner, Jesus took onto himself. His whole life, death, and resurrection is a gift for you, graciously given.

It’s hard to believe. I know. It’s hard to believe that there is really nothing you or I have to do – can even do – to earn God’s favor. If it was earned, it would no longer be a gift. If it were deserved, grace would no longer be grace. So, like a gift from a generous giver that you feel you do not deserve, that you think is too much, just receive it, even if you do not fully understand their reason or motivation for giving it. The truth is, God loves you more than you will ever know. God is far more generous than you can ever imagine. God loves to give from the wealth of his goodness far more than you could ever ask or imagine. It’s good! Even if you can’t fully comprehend it, listen to the message he proclaims, learn about the gift he’s given, and finally, trust with a faith that only he can give.

There’s a really neat detail in Mary’s final response to Gabriel. She trusts the angel, but seeks to understand by asking, “How will this be, since I am a virgin” (Lk 1:34). The angel explains how God will do this, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God… No word from God will ever fail” (Lk 1:35, 37). And Mary responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Lk 1:38). But that word for “word” is not the usual one. It’s not “logos,” which is typically used. It’s “rymma” which has a connotation more leaning toward the sounds – the full meaning of which is not entirely grasped or understood. This is in contrast to “logos” which conveys a message with a clear meaning. That’s how ready to receive Mary was. She did not pretend to grasp all that the angel said or its full implication. All she knew was that the message came from God, and that whatever he was about to give was entirely good.

We may not always understand our lot in life. Why is God allowing this to happen. Why isn’t God providing me with this thing that I need. And we try to make sense of it. What might God be doing in my life, even through this experience that has me at my wits end – hanging by a thread. Sometimes God is simply peeling back the layers of self-reliance to teach us to rely on him. Sometimes God takes away the things we’ve worked so hard to gain, so that we can gain something better from him. We may not always understand it fully the difficulties he gives. We may not always understand the goodness he gives. Sometimes his plan for our lives will be like “rymma” – utterances that we can’t fully make sense of. That’s when we learn to just be ready to receive. He has your life in his hands. He’s already given you the Greatest Gift. The message assures you. The gift proves it. And he gives you the faith to trust it.

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What are you hoping to see? (Dec 13, 2020)

January 2, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

What are you hoping to see?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

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Christmas is coming. It’s just around the corner. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you. The signs of the season are everywhere, grabbing your attention. This time of year, many churches too are trying to get your attention. There are live nativities. There are Christmas events. There are service projects. There are special worship services. And I know many families do make time for some of these special Christmas events this time of year. I’m glad for that. I hope you plan on coming out to see and hear the special worship services that we will have. But as you are planning on attending, consider also that reason why you are going. What do you go to see? What is the draw, and what do you hope to get out of it?

There was a big draw out in the wilderness long ago. People were going out in droves to see this man who wore strange garments, ate a strange diet, but most importantly, preached a powerful message and baptized! They came from all over – from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. He was getting so much attention, in fact, that the religious leaders had to take him seriously and find out about him. By whose authority does he do these things?

So, “The Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was” (Jn 1:19). It’s obvious he left people with quite an impression because these were the top suspects of whom he might be: Are you the Messiah? “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah’” (Jn 1:20). Pause here for a minute. They were so close! I find it amazing, and yet heartbreaking, that they actually ask if John is the Messiah. And when he says, “No, I’m not, but He is,” they don’t even consider the possibility. Ok, if you’re not the Messiah, Are you Elijah? Malachi prophesied about the prophet Elijah coming back as a forerunner to the Messiah. Actually, we just read that prophecy. And although John is the fulfillment of that prophecy, he was not the fulfillment in the way they were thinking. They thought this prophecy referred to a resurrected Elijah for a renewed ministry. So, John answered, “I am not” (Jn 1:21). Then, are you “the Prophet” that Moses prophesied about (Deut 18:15)? This prophecy of “the Prophet” was actually about Jesus, the Messiah. So, John once again answered, “No” (Jn 1:21).

Well, they need some sort of answer. Important people are asking about him. They are trying to see if it’s worth their time to go out and hear what this John has to say. Or, if he was a threat to their religion, which, despite all it’s sights and sounds, rites and rituals, was having a hard time competing with this loner out in the wilderness. So, they ask him flat out, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (Jn 1:22). And John replies, “I am the voice.” But I don’t say this about myself. I find it so fascinating that they ask what he says about himself, by his own authority. But John says, “No, no. I don’t say anything about myself. But listen to what God says about me through his prophet, your prophet, Isaiah.” We just had this reading last week. “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (Jn 1:23).

This is the one who gave John his authority. This is the one whom John pointed to. In fact, the reason John was out there looking strange, eating a fad diet, and drawing a crowd was so that people might come out to see what is really important. John is so downplayed here in this text. He humbled himself, got out of the way, so that the true Light of the world could shine! I mean, just listen to how this text reads: “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (Jn 1:6-8). So plain and matter of fact. But then, the writer launches into a vibrant and deep description of the Light. “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:9, 14). John testifies about him. He cries out about him. What are you hoping to see? I hope it’s Him.

Afterall, what’s the alternative? What if John were the main event? What if John was there merely to instruct the people about his strict ascetic lifestyle? About abstaining from alcohol, wearing a garment of camel’s hair, and subsisting on wild honey and locusts – calling upon all to emulate his example as a means of attaining salvation? Isn’t this what all the other religious leaders were doing? Didn’t the Pharisees demand that people follow their ways, emulate them, and look glowingly upon them and their actions? If John had done that, he would have been yet another false prophet, attracting people to come see him for all the wrong reasons. Instead, he directs all people, even his own disciples, away from himself and toward the Light of the world. It’s as if he wanted to say: “I am not the Christ. I am not the Light. I cannot illumine you, nor can I give you life. But believe in Him and be guided by Him whose witness I am. By means of my distasteful appearance I want to urge you to pay better attention to me as I testify about Christ, the Light of the world.” (adapted from Luther’s Works, Vol. 22, p. 49-50).

Sadly, many are drawn by these things, and go to see them for all the wrong reasons. As you think about all the Christmas events that piqued your interest, consider why they did. What are you hoping to see? Do you hope that by participating in a coat drive or distributing gifts to the less fortunate, you can feel better about yourself? Do you hope that by listening to Christmas concerts and carolers, or driving through light shows you will better feel the atmosphere of Christmas warming your heart? Do you hope that by attending the worship service with the lights and sounds you will be more a part of it, more immersed?

What are you hoping to get from it? We long for the nostalgia. We eagerly anticipate the emotion that swells with our favorite Christmas songs. But that’s not what we need. That’s not the point of any of this. In fact, it’s a feeling and emotion that will not last. If that’s all we are hoping for from a church this Christmas season, then we’ve come out for all the wrong reasons – reasons that will quickly fade and leave us feeling empty once again. The trees will eventually come down. The lights and ornaments will be put away. Those beloved Christmas songs which warm your heart and fill you with nostalgia will soon shift to the minor tones of Lent. And if that’s all you came for – the lights and the sounds – then what are you left with?

So, consider again, what are you hoping to see? What are you hoping to get out of Worship? Are you hoping to feel more immersed in the spirit of Christmas? Don’t just feel immersed. Be immersed. “Dear Christian friend, on him depend; be of good cheer and let no sorrow move you. For God’s own Child in mercy mild joins you to him – how greatly God must love you!” (CW 40:3). Are you hoping to warm your heart? It’s not found in the glowing lights and peaceful music. “O Jesus Christ, Your manger is my paradise where my soul is reclining. For there, O Lord, we find the Word made flesh for us – your grace is brightly shining” (CW 40:1).

There’s ultimately one reason why we have all of this. Why we have a building. Why we have beautiful music, special services, a special ambiance this past week and on Christmas Eve. One reason ultimately for anything we do as a congregation. One thing I want you to go home knowing and believing each and every Sunday. All of this is to witness and testify concerning the Light, so that through him all might believe. So that you might understand why Jesus was born for you. So that you might know who he is, God’s Son, our Savior. So that you might know about his death and would take hold of the forgiveness earned for you on the cross. So that you might know about his resurrection and trust completely in your salvation through him, so that you have the certain hope of heaven. That’s what I hope you are coming to see and hear. Not the lights and the sounds, but the Word made flesh, the Light of the World.

This is why John came. So that you might believe. This is why he attracted attention. To point you to the Light. This is why we have the prophets, and why the Old Testament believers had the ceremonial laws of God, the temple, the priesthood, the rituals prescribed by God. To draw attention, but not to these things themselves. We are talking about this very thing in Bible class on Sunday mornings. God gave the sights and sounds of the temple, the priesthood and garments, the rites and rituals so that the eyes of the world would be fixated on this nation, and their God. So that people would know without a doubt that God is holy and we are not. That we needed a mediator between us and God. That the only way to atone for sin was by blood. While many of the ceremonies of the Old Testament where grand, and the temple magnificent, and the priests who administered them stately in appearance, the constant repetition of the ceremonies was evidence that in themselves they were incapable of removing sin.

Yet they all pointed to the one who could. Jesus is the fulfillment of the sacrifice of atonement. It is only his holy, precious blood by which we are made presentable to a holy God. He is the priest who sacrificed himself and took away the sins that separated us from God. That is why the curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Most Holy Place was torn in two. Because now you are no longer separated from God. Christ came into the world to save sinners. He was born to save you. And now, he serves in heaven itself – the true temple – as your mediator.

Sadly, after Jesus ascended into heaven and persecution broke out against the Christian church, many Jewish believers wanted to go back to the sights and sounds, the rites and rituals of worship at the Temple – worship that focused on these rites and rituals as the way to salvation. Worship that lost sight of what it was meant to point to – Jesus the Messiah. Sadly too, as I hear people new to the area ask about churches, and they list their priorities for a church, the top of their list is often programs for the family to plug into and music style, rather than specific biblical teachings. And please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not at all against children’s programs, different styles of worship, and service projects. I think they are all really good things to be doing. But they don’t come first. They are not the reason why we attend church, nor our top priorities when finding a church. Number one is our Savior, the Light of the world. He alone can straighten out our lives and lead us on the way to salvation. And he alone can give us the proper focus of our children’s programs. He alone can give us the proper motivation for service projects – sharing Christ’s love and his Gospel. He alone can make the peace that fills our hearts while singing that particular song – he alone can make that peace last.

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