Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

Welcome Home (August 25, 2019)

August 28, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Welcome Home

Hebrews 2:9-18

Brothers and sisters in Christ, welcome home. How are you doing? Does this place feel like home to you? Is it a place you feel like you can unburden and relax? Slump down into your seat and just know from this place that everything is going to be ok? Some of you would, no doubt, answer “Yes! This is where I’m comfortable. This place feels like a warm hug.” Others of you, though, might answer, “Home? This is supposed to feel like home? It’s never felt that way to me. I feel like a stranger. Sometimes, I even feel like I am not wanted. No this place doesn’t feel anything like home to me!”

Sometimes things don’t feel the way God intends. Sometimes things don’t seem the way they really are. In fact, nowhere is that more true than in Hebrews 2 where we are told something remarkable and unbelievable. Are you ready for it? “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Heb 2:11). The eternal God of the whole universe is your brother! And if that’s not hard enough to comprehend, Hebrews chapter 1 underscores just who Jesus your brother really is. He is the “heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3). He “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). He is the one about whom the Father says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb 1:6), and “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever” (Heb 1:8). Yes, Jesus, your brother, is also called the one who “laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of [his] hands” (Heb 1:10).

To think that this one calls himself your brother?! He is the one who willingly “was made lower than the angels for a little while” (Heb 2:9). He is the one who “is not ashamed to call you brothers and sisters” (Heb 2:11). It’s as if you had a brother who was world famous, rich beyond your wildest dreams, and powerfully influential in all he does. And yet he doesn’t hesitate to associate with you, to welcome you into his home, to go into your home, and be right there with you. A real down to earth kind of guy.

To try to put this into perspective, you can think of the Chevy Chase movie, “Christmas Vacation.” In this movie, you are introduced to his character’s down-and-out brother-in-law who drives up in a beat-up Winnebago. His raggedy niece and nephew, and his snarky in-laws pile out. It’s not a pleasant sight. They say you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. And yet, Jesus did pick you as his family! He willingly put his name on you when you were baptized and continues to strengthen your family bonds through the Word and the Lord’s Supper. He humbled himself to the point of being “lower than the angels for a little while” (Heb 2:9) because he wanted you in his family.

The dumpster-diving God leaves his perfect Triune Family in a pristine, sinless heaven, was born into the dumpster called earth to search through the filth and rubbish of this fallen world – for you, and for you, and for you. He’s the Lord who chose to live with you. He’s the Lord who chose to be your brother. And he didn’t just spend an extended weekend with you. He spent 33 years of what must have been an absolutely mind-numbing existence. A 24 hour revolting experience if you contrast heaven and earth – his riches to rags story.

But he did this willingly, lovingly, compassionately so that he could “bring many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). Jesus took my sin and your sin, and the sins of all people upon himself and did what we couldn’t do. And you get the forgiveness and holiness you so desperately need! You and I get to bask in all Jesus’ glory!

Actor Kevin Bacon recounted when his 6-year-old son saw Footloose for the first time. He said, “Hey, Dad, you know that thing in the movie where you swing from the rafters of that building? That’s really cool, how did you do that?” I said, “Well, I didn’t do that part – it was a stunt man.” “What’s a stunt man?” he asked. “That’s someone who dresses like me and does things I can’t do.” “Oh,” he replied and walked out of the room looking a little confused. A little later he said, “Hey, Dad, you know that thing in the movie where you spin around on that gym bar and land on your feet? How did you do that?” I said, “Well, I didn’t do that. It was a gymnastics double.” “What’s a gymnastics double?” he asked. “That’s a guy who dresses in my clothes and does things I can’t do.” There was silence from my son, then he asked in a concerned voice, “Dad, what did you do?” “I got all the glory,” I sheepishly replied.

Our brother, Jesus, not only lived for the people of this world, but he, “tasted death for everyone” (Heb 2:9). I think of just a couple weeks ago, we were sitting at the table eating dinner. And the rule we try to enforce is that we have to sit at the table until we finish all the food on our plate. Well, Nehemiah starts off strong, but very quickly fades, and soon is doing anything but eating. I finally get him to eat his last bite, but there’s still his cup of milk. By now, the milk is warm and not the least bit pleasant to drink. It probably has some crumbs in it from whatever we were eating as well. Who on earth would volunteer to drink that glass of warm milk to free him from the dinner table? Very few of us would do it willingly. In contrast, your brother, Jesus, was willing to drink death to the dregs for you. What a brother!

Verse 10 then goes on to explain that Jesus was made “perfect through what he suffered” (Heb 2:10). That word for perfect means “complete,” or, “to bring to a goal.” Without suffering, Jesus would not have been a complete savior. So it was fitting that he should suffer and die. After all, it was his goal to bring “many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). And since the Father’s and the Son’s wills are in perfect alignment, the Son willingly went along with the suffering.

Verse 11 is the bombshell that we began with. “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Heb 2:11). Many people are ashamed of their families. Perhaps your father is the town drunk. Perhaps your mother is a mess. Maybe your sister has known too many men, or your brother has been in trouble with the law more times than you can count. And so, you are ashamed. You are ashamed to admit your relationship. You are concerned with what others will think of you if they know you are related to him or her.

If ever there was a brother who had a right to be ashamed of his siblings, it is Jesus. He ought to have disowned us long ago. He ought to hang his head in shame at even knowing us. If we were him, that’s surely what we would do. But he is not like us. He is the one who has made us perfect through his suffering. He is not ashamed to call you brothers and sisters because he has made you holy in his sight. He is as proud to call you a brother or a sister as someone whose sibling won a gold medal at the Olympics or was elected to high office. Jesus points to you and says, “He is my brother! She is my sister!”

And he is here with us this morning. Just as surely as I am standing right here in front of you, as surely as that person is seated next to you, he is here. Listen again to what Jesus says to his Father, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly [in the congregation] I will sing your praises” (Heb 2:12). Isn’t that amazing! Jesus is joining us in our worship this morning. Even as we praise him, he joins us in praising his Father. Of course, he is here to do more than be worshiped by us and worship with us. He is here to give to you – to give you his forgiveness so you need never fear his anger. To give you the promise of eternal life so that you need never fear death. To give you his strength so that you need never fear temptation. “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18).

I think of my grandma in Hong Kong whom I lived with before Ruby and I got married – and after, in fact. I learned very quickly that I should never eat if I was on my way home. Because she was incapable of allowing anyone to walk into her home without giving them something to eat. She was always thinking of me and buying snacks for me. She’d pile them on my desk for when I was home. When I went home, she insisted on feeding me a meal – and there was always more. Our brother Jesus treats you the same way. When you enter this house, he insists on feeding you. He always has more for you. He knows precisely what your needs are and provides the spiritual nourishment to meet those needs. He feeds you in his word. He gives your forgiveness in the absolution. He gives you strength for your faith in the Lord’s Supper, and much more. It’s no wonder Jesus’ brothers and sisters love to visit his house! He feeds you well here! And invites you to come often.

Certain places just evoke certain feelings. If you were raised in a warm, loving family, the thought of coming home immediately brings joyful thoughts to mind. Some of my strongest memories were finally arriving home for Christmas break after a long semester of school and what seemed like an even longer drive home. There was the smell of a freshly placed pine tree ready for decorating. Music softly playing in the background, and a hot meal always ready. But of course, there were the faces of the people I longed to be with. People who just understand you, and place no burdens on you.

But not everyone was raised in such an environment. For some, the thought of their childhood home brings feelings of sadness or loneliness or lovelessness. In the same way, some Christians have had wonderful experiences in God’s house. They have found caring and supportive brothers and sisters in Christ. They have found warmth and welcome. But, others have not. Some of you have experienced unloving attitudes and actions. For some of you, this place has never felt like home. In part, this weak “family feel” could be due to our culture’s tendency toward isolation rather than from actual unloving attitudes or actions. In our society, some people don’t even know their neighbors. They leave for work, close the garage by remote, and return to the same cocoon in the evening. Sometimes that extends to this place and people don’t connect with others at Sunday worship. People come and go with a degree of anonymity – or at least without a deep connection to others. Maybe we feel more like distant cousins than brothers and sisters. But we do care – and want to improve our caring – for those cousins.

Sadly, it’s not always that simple. Sadly, sometimes it is that brother has hurt sister, or sister has been unloving toward brother. This is why Every Member Sunday affords us the opportunity to repent of our sins against brothers and sisters in Christ. We beg forgiveness from Christ and from one another for every unkind thought, every hurtful word, every self-serving action. Were we upset about something so silly as how to do this or that? Were we simply too selfish to consider how our words or actions impacted others? Were we too busy serving ourselves to think of how we might serve those around us? For all of the ways we have failed to be the brothers and sisters God has called us to be, we repent.

And, even as our loving Lord assures us of his forgiveness, we look for opportunities to show his kind love and forgiveness to the fellow members of our church family. Who is hurting? Who needs help? How can I serve? What can I do? This attitude of love and service to our brothers and sisters creates the kind of home we all long for. It is a place where we can find encouragement as we face an increasingly hostile world, hope when we feel hopeless, and help when we feel helpless.

As today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes put it: “Two are better than one…. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up…. A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Ecc). We are not wired to exist as rugged individuals. We need one another. God has designed us to be this way, and God’s design is for us to be family in Christ.

People often ask if someone can be a Christian without going to church. Technically, of course, they could. There are those who are, for a variety of reasons, unable to be active in a Christian congregation. But, when we consider who is here when we gather as we are this morning – our brother Jesus and our Christian brothers and sisters – we might answer this questions by saying, “Who would want to?” It would be like asking if you can be a member of your family without ever visiting your parents’ home. Technically, the answer is “yes.” But, I can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to.

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Your Father Gives Good Gifts (August 18, 2019)

August 22, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers
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Your Father Gives Good Gifts

Luke 11:1-13

I don’t think I’m a very good prayer. Sometimes I listen to other pastors pray, and I just marvel at the reverence in their address, the wisdom in their petitions, and the fitting way they wrap it up so perfectly matching the closing with their petitions that it’s as if it’s tied with a matching bow and so delicately sent off. I don’t think I pray so eloquently – especially when it’s an “off the cuff” prayer, an “ex corde” prayer.

But then I look at this prayer, Jesus’ prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. And my thoughts change. I still think I need to improve my prayers, but this prayer, the Lord’s prayer, is so simple compared to what I typically think a good prayer should be. The address is one word! There are short, simple petitions without really any connections. And the closing, well Jesus doesn’t even give that here! It looks so simple in comparison to what I typically think of as a good prayer. And yet, I still have a hard time praying as Jesus taught. I still have a hard time praying for the truly good gifts that Jesus teaches me to pray for.

As we study this section today, there’s two things I want you to focus on. The first thing is “gifts”. Notice what kind of gifts Jesus teaches to pray for. The second thing is “Father”. Because God is your Father, how are you able to talk to him.

I said that I still have a hard time praying as Jesus taught. I still have a hard time praying for the truly good gifts that Jesus teaches me to pray for. To be honest, most of my prayers are for the wellbeing of my family, my own struggles and thankfulness, and the people that God has entrusted into my spiritual care. But that’s much too narrow. That’s much too closeminded. Those are merely the things that I have direct contact with – things that impact my life and my immediate circumstances. I think that’s why they so often fill my prayers. Because they are close to me. Because they impact me. Because I can easily see tangible results. In essence, they are all things that I can test to see how God answers my prayers. And, they are all centered on me. Sure, I’m praying for other people, but I pray for other people because their lives impact my own. So, when I compare my typical prayer with the way that Jesus taught us to pray, I feel a little self-conscious. I feel a little embarrassed. There’s a good deal of room for improvement.

Could you imagine being a disciple? Can you imagine what they must have felt on a daily basis? Luke frequently mentions Jesus in prayer. He prayed after he was baptized (Lk 3:21). He often withdrew to solitary places to pray (Lk 5:16). He once spent a whole night praying (Lk 6:12)! And the disciples were often with him, observing this, listening to his prayers. I think very quickly they would become conscious of how weak their own praying was by contrast. That’s probably what prompted this very question. One of those days when Jesus was praying, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1). What should we pray for? How should we pray? John taught his disciples to pray. Teach us too! It serves as a reminder that good praying is something that doesn’t come naturally. It’s something that’s learned. It’s something which takes practice to get better. Because by nature we are selfish. By nature, we are self-centered. And that’s reflected in our prayers. Even having come to faith, with the New Man led rightly by the Holy Spirit, that Old Adam still infiltrates our prayers. Our sinful nature still influences the things we pray for.

So, let’s look at the Lord’s prayer and learn from Jesus what good gifts we are to pray for. There’s 3 things I want you to note. First, the spiritual outweighs the material. Of the 7 petitions in the Lord’s prayer – I know there are only 5 recorded in Luke – but of the 7 petitions, only 1 of them is for material gifts. “Give us each day our daily bread” (Lk 11:3). The other 6 petitions are for spiritual gifts. It’s a reminder that the most important gifts are spiritual. The most important things in life are spiritual. Man does not live on bread alone. Yes, we need it. But there’s other gifts we need far more. The spiritual outweighs the material. Second, pray for all people. Look at all the petitions and notice that they are for the benefit of all people, or large groups of people – not just me and my own. “Give US each day.” “Forgive US our sins.” “Lead US not into temptation.” (Lk 11:3-4). “Forgive us our sins” and “Lead us not into temptation” are specifically for all believers, but the rest are for all people. Even “Hallowed be your name” and “Your kingdom come” (which means let faith through the gospel come), are prayers for all people. Broaden your focus. Lift your eyes from your own circles and your own congregation, and pray for the kingdom of God! So, the spiritual outweighs the material, pray for all people, and finally, pray to your Father. I’ll talk about this more in depth in a moment, but what I mean is, when you pray, remember your relationship with God. He is your Father. You are his child. He’s not a distant ruler of the galaxies. He’s not an unapproachable King of kings. He’s your Father. Your dad. Elsewhere Jesus teaches us to pray to him as “Abba, Father!” (Rm 8:15). It’s what a young and trusting child would call their daddy.

Pray to your Father. He has good gifts for you. Pray primarily for spiritual gifts, like forgiveness, guidance, and faith. These are better, more beneficial for you, each and every day. And pray for all people. God’s good gifts get even better when shared with others. This isn’t something we do naturally. These aren’t the “go-to” good gifts that we typically pray for. So, practice this often.

In fact, practice this often not just to drive it into your own mind. But practice it often because Jesus actually tells you to persist with God in your prayers. Actually, Jesus says it even more strongly than that. He says to pray with “shameless audacity” (Lk 11:8).

Jesus tells a story, a parable. He puts you right into the action and says that you are hosting a friend for the night on his travels. Yet, you don’t have what you need to host your friend. You don’t have any bread or food to offer your friend. So, you go to your neighbor, it’s late at night, they have young kids already in bed sleeping. Your neighbor is already sleeping. But you keep banging on that door. You keep ringing that doorbell. You keep calling their phone. Even close friends would have enough sense to not do this. It’s common curtesy not to pester someone at inconvenient hours of the night. But do you know who would? A child. A child would pester their parents with “shameless audacity” at any hour of the night and at inconvenient times. Children often lack a sense of what’s proper and request things with unashamed boldness. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying here. You and I need to stop thinking of Jesus as a friend, and start thinking of him as a loving Father. A Father whom we can pester and bother whenever we like and as often as we like. And he doesn’t see it as a bother. He doesn’t see it as pestering. He’s happy to see your persistence.

Persistence pays with God. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Lk 11:9). In fact, these verbs are all present imperatives indicating continuing action. “Keep on asking… keep on seeking… keep on knocking.” Like a little child persistently tugging on their father’s shirt. Or a toddler who will not stop saying, “Hey dad… hey dad… hey dad.” Jesus also adds a promise to each. “It will be given…. You will find… it will be opened” (Lk 11:9). Jesus encourages persistence and also encourages the confidence that little children have trusting, “my dad can do anything!”

And right after that parable, Jesus goes right into another. Because our immediate thought is, “Well I’ve asked for things and it wasn’t given to me. I’ve knocked and doors were not opened.” That’s why we need to also understand the second parable as well. Jesus says, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Lk 11:11-12). Show of hands. Any fathers out there who would give their son a poisonous animal when they ask for food? I didn’t think so. If you fathers, though you are evil – and what he means by that is sinful and weak – If sinful and weak fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13). This goes two ways. First, and most obviously, When God’s children ask for something good and necessary, the heavenly Father does not give him something harmful. And second, even when we do ask for something harmful (even if we don’t think it is harmful to us), is your heavenly Father going to give you something that will harm you? Of course not. Your heavenly Father will give you something better. He only gives good gifts.

Which brings me to my last point. Notice carefully what the last verse says, verse 13. The natural parallelism would be to read it “If you… know how to give good gifts… how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts.” But that’s not what it says. Jesus breaks the parallelism to emphasize and to show what the greatest gift is. “If you… know how to give good gifts… how much more will your Father in heaven give THE HOLY SPIRIT to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13). The greatest gift anyone could receive is the Holy Spirit. The greatest gift your Father can give is the Holy Spirit. When you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Father, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. The Holy Spirit puts faith into your heart. Faith is the channel that lays hold of the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins means that you are justified – holy. Holiness means that you can enter heaven – you are saved! The good gifts just keep on coming! And your Father loves to give them. Pray for the good gifts that Jesus points out. Pray with shameless audacity.

 

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Fill up on the Word (August 11, 2019)

August 15, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Fill up on the Word

Colossians 3:15-17

Do you remember those old Gatorade commercials with the slogan, “Is it in you?” The commercials would show an athlete shooting baskets, running drills, or working out. And the whole commercial was black and white except for their sweat. Their sweat would be neon green, or bright orange, or some other Gatorade color – and there was a lot of it. They were sweating profusely! It’s like they had just come out of a pool. Their sweat was flying off them in sheets – all brightly colored and Gatorady. “Is it in you” was an understatement. Like a drenched sponge it looked like if you squeezed them just a little bit, Gatorade would come pouring out of them. After watching those commercials, I had no doubt in my imagination that those athletes had been consuming nothing but Gatorade for weeks!

That’s exactly the picture that Paul wants you to have in your mind when he says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (Col 3:16). Take in the Word. Consume the Word. Feed on the Word so much so that if someone barely touches you, the message of Christ comes gushing out like a drenched sponge. Feed on the Word so that it fills you. Feed on the Word so that it fuels you. Feed on the Word so that it flows through you.

If you think about it, “You are what you eat” really applies in a lot of spheres of life. Not just actual food pertaining to health. But the things that you read and study become a part of you. The things that you fill your time with and make a priority become a part of you. In every sphere of your life, whatever your focus, it becomes a part of you and fuels how you feel, how you act, and how you respond. These fuels we choose can also spill into other spheres of our lives as well. For example, if my day at work is filled with stress, that fuel is going to fill me and probably overflow into my family life when I get home. I’m going to be on edge, short tempered, and snappy. If my days are filled with meetings, deadlines, extracurriculars, practices, and everything else I’m trying to squeeze into one day, that frazzled fuel is going to overflow into everything I do. I’m going to be unable to focus. I’m going to get frustrated with people who are taking up too much of my precious time. I’m going to cut out the things I don’t think I have time for.

What is it for you? What do you fill up on during the day? What fuel do you fill up on and how is it affecting your work, your relationships, your free time? Are any of these things suffering because you constantly fill up on the wrong fuel? If so – and I think we all do – it’s time to take a diet analysis to see what’s really in us.

The apostle Paul gives us the best daily diet advice – focuses our attention on the proper fuel. He says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (Col 3:16). Richly! Abundantly! Overflowing and drenched like the athletes in the Gatorade commercials! The Scriptures should be more than something believers hear periodically or invite as an occasional guest into their homes. The Word of Christ should inhabit Christians continually, filling every corner of their lives with it’s spiritual wisdom for daily life and eternal life! And I’ll admit, I too need work on this. After spending much of my day working with the Word, sometimes I forget that I need to bring it home as well. As I reflect on this, it’s really sad that the Word sometimes feels like a foreigner in my house. Yes, we get into good habits for a time with nightly Bible readings with the kids, but then we fall out of the habit due to busy days and rushed bedtimes. And when our daily diet is lacking the most important ingredient – the message of Christ – it shows. There’s lack of patience. There’s problems. There’s no peace.

So, let’s all redirect our diets. Let’s all fill up on the Word and make it our daily fuel. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (Col 3:16). When you do this, you are immediately going to notice a change take place. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:15).

It’s really hard to find peace when your heart is anything but peaceful. It’s really hard to find peace when you are filled with the stresses of your day. But when you fill up on the Word, you will have peace. It won’t be something you have to find. It won’t be something you have to get. When you fill up on the Word, you will have peace! Because a rich and steady diet of God’s Word provides all you need.

When you are distressed or downtrodden because you feel like you haven’t quite found where you belong, you find your place in the Word. You are “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Col 3:12). In your baptism, he lovingly brought you into his family. In the Word he speaks directly to you. In prayer, he listens patiently to you. Your home is here. When you are disgusted by your own words or disappointed in your actions, you find pardon and forgiveness in the Word. It is in the Word that you find Jesus forgiving those who mock him, and forgiving those who nailed him to the cross. In the Word your wrongs are forgiven at the cross and you are fueled to live a life of “compassion and kindness” (Col 3:12). When you are drowning in the relentless waves of worry or dead under the weight of wickedness done to you, you find life in the Word. It’s in the Word that you see how God can turn weakness into strength. It’s in the Word where you see God turn the tides in ways that are not expected. It’s in the Word where your focus is broadened to see not only the here and now, but also what your future holds. Fueled by your ultimate victory through Christ, you can be “patient” (Col 3:12) and have peace through any affliction.

Brothers and sisters, do you see how the most important thing you need to face anything life throws at you is found in the Word? Forgiveness for the past. Confidence for today. And hope for tomorrow – it’s all there! So fill up on this Word that fuels you. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (Col 3:16). Make it the focal point of every day “as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col 3:16). You find such a rich diet of the Word right here in the worship service. In fact, from time to time, I’ve annotated in the margin of the bulletin where different parts of the service come from in the Scriptures and it’s almost the entire thing! Many of our hymns are just drenched in scriptural references as well! One of the reasons the Lutheran Reformation took root was because, Luther said, God’s Word was sung into the people’s hearts! People knew what the “One thing Needful” for salvation was because the message of Christ was sung into their hearts. People knew what forgiveness and grace were because the message of Christ was sung into their hearts. People knew why they go “Forth in the Peace of Christ” because the message of Christ was sung into their hearts. Brothers and sisters, we have been given a heritage of hymns that is so rich in the message of Christ. We have been given a liturgy that is so rich in the message of Christ. We focus every Sunday on the message of Christ. Take this buffet home with you. Fill up on it every day. Fill up on it with your families. And let this be the fuel for each and every day.

When you do, you are going to see great things happen! It’s going to be the peace in your heart that rules every moment. No longer will your heart be filled with the frantic busyness of the day. No longer will your heart be distracted, distant, disgusted or deriding. It will be filled with peace. Peace will rule every moment. Peace will rule every word and every action. When the peace of the message of Christ fills you and fuels you, then it will also flow through you.

Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). It happens when you have a favorite author that you read constantly, or a favorite radio show or podcast, you start to speak like them. You start to take on some of their mannerisms. It flows through you effortlessly. Their words are always on your lips. How great is it when God’s voice is the one that fills our minds! How great is it when the message of Christ is always on our lips. How many opportunities would we make the most of if we weren’t struggling for the words to say, but they are already on our lips and out our mouths because every day we take time to fill up on God’s Word?

In the same way, often we start to mimic and copy the friends and family that we hang out with the most. It still amazes me at our family reunions how my siblings and I almost immediately dive into our own way of communicating and interacting with one another. In fact, at the last family reunion we had, my brother’s girlfriend – the newest to member to join the group – just kept saying, “That’s where Micah get’s that from.” Or, “That’s why he does that.” If you think about it, I’ve been with my siblings for about 18 years of my life. Of course we are going to rub off on each other!

So what’s it like when you, or your children, grow up in household where Jesus is a regular guest – a regular member – of the house for 18 years and beyond! Don’t you think he’s going to rub off on you? Don’t you think he’s going to rub off on your kids. Very quickly you are going to see how the peace of Christ fuels every moment of your day, and how whatever you do, whether in word or deed, is done in the name of the Lord Jesus – all because you took the time to fill up on the Word – to drench yourself in the message of Christ.

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The only person you can change is you (August 4, 2019)

August 5, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

The only person you can change is you

Romans 12:9-21

Have you changed your mind yet? Debate season is starting up, along with presidential campaigning. If you’ve tuned in to any of this, have they changed your mind? What about any kind of debate or argument you’ve participated in online, with friends, or wherever else? And it doesn’t even have to be political. That’s just what seems to be most prevalent at this time. I mean, from little on we are debating and arguing with others. “That’s mine!” is probably the first argument we learn, trying to persuade your friends that you have the right to play with the toy. Then we learn how to back up our arguments with supporting details as we talk with our friends about favorite characters in books and TV shows. And finally, when we are adults and fairly convinced in our own minds, our debates can, at times, get pretty heated! It makes me wonder, though. Can we ever really change a person’s mind? Can we ever really persuade someone? I think it’s possible, but only with great effort. And, to make matters worse, I’ll borrow a quote from the wise trolls in the movie Frozen, “The head can be persuaded, but the heart is not so easily changed.” Or, to put it in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (Rm 7:21-23).

Even if you manage to change someone’s mind, it’s very difficult to change the driving motives of a person’s actions. That’s where the rubber hits the road when you get into this “Christian thing.” Picture being new to the faith, or, even let’s just take a refresher about what it means to be “Christian” – what it means to bear the name of Christ. And here, Romans 12, is a good place to start. “Love must be sincere” (Rm 12:9). Got it! Sincere love. Let’s go on. “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Rm 12:9). Yup, just kind of a reiteration. Check! “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rm 12:10). Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. I think I can do that. I’ll just reorder those priorities in my head. God first, others second, me last. Sure, I can keep that it mind. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rm 12:12). Awesome! That’s kind of like one of those Magnolia plaques that says, “Live, Laugh, Love.” Just the Christian version. “Joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rm 12:12). Ok! Look out world here I come!

But then I slam on the breaks as I read what comes next. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rm 12:14). … “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not take revenge… overcome evil with good” (Rm 12:14,17,21). Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’ve got to do that? I mean, I understand it. You know, “What would Jesus do.” Of course. But, how can I bless someone who hurts me? How can I not repay someone who clearly did me wrong and deserves it! How can you ever overcome evil with good? Wouldn’t my enemy just take advantage of me?

The head can be persuaded, but the heart is not so easily changed. The heart that is by nature sinful does not like to do good to those who hurt me, cheat me, persecute me, and make my life difficult. Sure, I can try for a while, maybe even keep up a good façade for a while. But in the end, it’s going to eat away at me. Diminish my will. And eventually make me cave and lash out.

It all goes back to the very first line. “Love must be sincere” (Rm 12:9). Another way of translating that is, “Love without hypocrisy.” If you are going to love – and this is agape love here – love without conditions.

I’ll give you an example of what that looks like. A man was standing on a bridge. He had lost all hope. He had already been divorced for some time now, but just a couple months ago he was in a car accident with his son. The boy didn’t make it. With his son gone, and already dealing with feelings of guilt, now overcome by them, he had no reason to go on. No strength to live. He felt that he had no place and that no one loved him… that no one could love him. As he prepared to climb over the railing, the bumper sticker on a passing car caught his eye. It read, “God loves you.” Maybe it’s because he was scared to actually go through with it. Maybe it was one last desperate attempt, but he left the bridge, went to the church that he knew was close by and asked the pastor there, “Does God really love me?” “Yes,” was the pastor’s response. “But wait, I haven’t even told you anything abou-“ “God loves you!” The pastor interrupted. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. His love isn’t dependent upon you. God loves you because his love is sincere – without any kind of conditions. So no matter what you say or confess, God still loves you.”

You can’t force a change of heart onto someone else, but you can change your heart to love sincerely as Christ has loved you. He didn’t take into account the number of times you pushed him away. He doesn’t consider the many evil things you have done in life. There’s no asterisk, fine print, or conditions attached to his love. When he brings you to himself it’s because of his own love. Not your actions. Martin Luther once said, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look to Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.” Because his love is sincere. Because when Jesus says, “I love you.” The sentence ends right there.

Now you – you who bear his name, “Christian” – go and do the same. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rm 12:14), “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rm 12:17), and “Do not take revenge” (Rm 12:19). It’s a tall order. But there are some things that perhaps make these life changes a little easier.

This is the very example that Jesus shows us by his own life. If there was anyone who followed this list to the T, it was Jesus. He hated what was evil – overturning the tables which crowded out sincere love for God – and clung to what was good – sitting in the temple, talking with the teachers even as a young boy. He rejoiced with those who rejoiced at the wedding of Cana. He mourned with those who mourned, even shedding his own tears for Lazarus alongside Mary and Martha. He was not proud. He was not conceited. He regularly associated with people of low position. And when evil men nailed him to a cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

But the example of Jesus, though inspiring, is not enough to foster a change in us. Observing the example of Jesus and trying to always do what Jesus would do is really just law. The example of Jesus is the law kept perfectly as we ought to. Striving after this perfect example leads only to despair. And despairing at how hard the law is to keep leads only to rebelling against it. And so, looking at Jesus example isn’t to despair and abandon him, but rather to realize that Jesus perfectly kept all of God’s law for you. He loved perfectly for you. He changed what we can’t change. He changes the heart. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17). All this is possible because God reconciled himself to you in Jesus. All of this means that when God sees you, he sees the perfection of Jesus.

And yet, through Jesus, you ARE able to change too, because God changed you. He took all your sin onto himself. He took all that’s wrong with the world onto himself. Every evil, every curse, every persecution, everything that is wrong and needs to be set right, he did. “Leave room for God’s wrath… It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Rm 12:19), and God did just that. Repaid your evil on Christ. He righted your wrongs in Christ. He changed you through Christ. You are not consumed, because of God’s sincere love for you. Because God did every single one of these things in Romans 12 already for you.

“In view of all this”… That’s how Romans 12 actually starts. It sets the precedent for how we are able to be changed in any kind of way. “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rm 12:1). Out of the genuine joy you have in being forgiven, and from the sincere love you have for God, your love for others can be sincere. You can hate what is evil and cling to what is good. You can bless those who persecute you and not repay evil for evil. Rather “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rm 12:20).

It’s really the only way you are going to bring about any positive change in this world – by heaping burning coals upon people’s heads. Not literally, of course. But by doing good to those who don’t deserve it. When your enemy has vented wrath and done harm, it may go against their expectations if you be the one who changes and does not repay evil with evil. It may cause them to reflect on their course of action. It may lead them to see the error in their ways and regret their actions. Their sorrow and remorse may make them feel as though they are carrying burning coals on their heads. Whether they realize it or not, they will see Christ in you. Your change through Christ may be enough to change them – overcoming evil with good.

It’s not why we change. We change because that’s what God has made us through Christ. We change for Christ and because of Christ. But, fueled by Christ’s love for you, you can share Christ with someone else by sincerely loving them. If they still don’t change, don’t worry about it. Leave it to God and keep on loving. But If they are changed, rejoice! The world is a better place to be when Christ is the change in us, and when he alone is our reason for loving.

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Give your nothing (July 28, 2019)

July 31, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Give your nothing

1 Kings 17:1-16

Have you ever had nothing left to give? Your week is scheduled so full with obligations packed so close together that when someone asks for a bit of your time, you simply have nothing left to give. I’ve been there. You’re in a transition period in your life or had a string of tough times, a friend asks for a bit of help but you simply have nothing left to give. I’ve been there. You’ve had a busy day – both physically and emotionally draining – and when it’s all over your family requires a little bit of patience but you simply have nothing left to give.

It was definitely a time of nothing for Elijah. He had no food – there was a famine in the land and no one had anything to spare. He had no support system – King Ahab had no time for any true prophets of God. And he had no security – this too from Ahab.

Actually, I think we need to back up a bit. Let me tell you a little bit about this king Ahab. The Bible says, he did “more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him” (1 Kgs 16:30). In fact, he was so evil that the Bible says he considered the sins of the kings who went before him as too “trivial to commit”. He delved even deeper into the worship of false gods – building a huge temple to Baal and setting up an Asherah pole. With Ahab, this idolatry was now no longer just a matter of syncretism – where you practice many religions side by side. Now it was open defiance against the LORD God and turning completely to Baal. False temples are built, and God’s true prophets are driven away.

Yet here stands Elijah. A prophet of the God that Ahab wants to eliminate. And Elijah doesn’t have anything nice or favorable to tell the king. No, God commands Elijah to proclaim judgment, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kgs 17:1). This made me wonder, though, why no rain? Why this specific plague? Why not turn the Jordan to blood, frogs or locust, fire from heaven, or death of the firstborn? All these are certainly swift and noticeable actions of judgment! Why did he decide on no rain – a famine? It’s actually very interesting! You see, Baal was a fertility deity – specifically, the “Lord of Rain and Dew”. And Asherah was also a fertility goddess, of new and growing things. So no rain, no dew, and no crops is a specific attack on these false gods that Ahab chose for himself over the true God. It’s almost like asking, “Where’s your god now?” Needless to say, Ahab was probably furious with Elijah, and blamed him for the famine. So Elijah is on the run with no food, no friends, and no security. He had nothing.

But the Lord took care of him. “Leave here,” God said, “turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there” (1 Kgs 17:3-4). Ok, sounds pretty doable. I mean, yeah, it’s going to take a miracle from God, but this was a prophet! Surely he trusts that God can do miracles. But do you realize just how big of a miracle this is? Have you ever seen a raven scavenge for food? They are quite greedy and quite RAVENous… see the word correlation? In fact, ravens have been known to not even feed their own young! And Elijah has to trust that in his time of nothing, God would provide through this unlikely provider. God did!

After a while, the brook dried up because of the drought. So, God directed Elijah again, “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food” (1 Kgs 17:9). Zarephath? A widow? Zarephath was a city outside of Israel. And Elijah had to trust that a Gentile was going to provide for an Israelite during these times of nothing? I’m sure word got around. “The Israelites say this famine happened because of one of their own prophets!” And she was a widow! Widows in those days are not like widows today. Their society didn’t really have a place in the workforce for them. They relied on the generosity of others. They had to scrounge for their own food and scrape together whatever they could just to survive. And this kind of person, who typically had nothing, was to provide for Elijah? Why not a nobleman who surely would have food to spare? Why not at least a God-fearing Israelite widow? But he went. He went trusting that God would provide even when there was nothing.

Elijah went and found this woman. He sees a woman gathering sticks at the town gate. Obviously poor. Most likely a widow. Is this the one? Elijah starts with a small test, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” (1 Kgs 17:10). What do you know?! She’s actually going to get it! This could be the one God was talking about! “As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.’” (1 Kgs 17:11). She didn’t have it… In fact, all she has is a handful of flour and a little oil. She was gathering a little kindling so that she could make all she had left into a small loaf so that she and her son could have their last meal before they die of starvation. The famine had been so severe that people were dying. It was so severe that it reached even north of Israel’s border. These were dire times.

But Elijah, the prophet of God had hope for this widow, who appears to be a believer because she says, “As surely as the LORD your God lives” (1 Kgs 17:12). Elijah offers reassurance, but also a test. He says, “Don’t be afraid, God will provide for you. But, go home and first make a small loaf and bring it to me. Then, when you have nothing, you and your son can have something.” “For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD sends rain on the land.’” (1 Kgs 17:14). There it is! The hope and promise of never running out of food throughout this bad famine. But you are going to have to trust God to provide what you do not see. And, you’re going to have to share this blessing. You are going to have to share your nothing. God says that there will be enough. Enough even not just to provide for you, but to serve God and his prophet as well.

This widow had nothing. And like the widow of Jesus’ day who gave her last mite, this widow gave everything she had to God. A small amount, yes, but huge proportionally. This little bit was all she had. It made me wonder, do we sometimes have too much? Do we have too much to be able to trust God? I mean, if you think about it from this widow’s perspective, what’s the difference if she kept this food for herself and lived another day, or shared it with others and died a day sooner? It’s strange to say, but I think sometimes we have too much to trust. Or at least we are too attached to what we have to trust that God will take care of us. Often, it’s those who are poor, those who are unwell, those who are struggling or being tested, those who have nothing who can see very plainly how God is providing.

I may have used this example before, but right after getting married, getting an apartment, and attending Seminary things were tight for my family. In fact I think every month we stressed about how we were going to stretch the nothing we had. And as early spring came, and after just paying for another semester, our half-basement apartment started to flood. Thankfully, we had nothing of value to be damaged, but just another stress, another test, piled on top. Yet, out of it came a huge blessing! Because of the flood, our landlord gave us a month of free rent! Some breathing room for us! And we have no doubt that this was God providing for us in an unusual way.

It isn’t just money. It’s our patience, our willingness to help out, our time. All of these things are valuable commodities to us that we only have a finite amount of. We see what we have, we know how far it will take us, and when we have nothing left to give, we become stingy with our money and our time. We leave no room for God to do amazing things with the nothing we have. What if it was a prophet of God who needed your help? Would you be more willing to share your time and possessions with him? What if it was Jesus himself who so often relied on the generosity of others to support him while he poured out his wealth of forgiveness and love. Doesn’t Jesus say, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40)? The last hymn we’ll sing today states this truth beautifully! Every opportunity you use to serve others with your time, your possessions, your heart – every opportunity, is an opportunity to serve Jesus himself.

Through this time of nothing, this unlikely pair was blessed by God. Elijah, who perhaps was despairing over the spiritual condition of Israel – in fact, he would lament just a couple chapters later that he is the only faithful one left – he finds this widow, a believer! A believer who has been so changed by God’s Word that she would give all she had – even the nothing she had – in service to God. And this widow, whose faith was probably faltering during this time, wondering, “Does the God of Israel really provide?” She found encouragement in her faith as “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah” (1 kgs 17:16). And they both ate! They both ate every day until the Lord lifted his judgment on Israel and sent rain.

In thinking about all this, you have to just marvel at how God provides for those who give. I’ll take it a step farther. He not only provides for those who give in good times. But he especially provides for those who give their nothing – trusting God to provide what cannot be seen. Even Jesus went through this. Think about it, what did Jesus not have a lot of? What might he have been tempted to keep for himself because he was lacking it? I think it would be time. Jesus had a very limited amount of time. He lived only until the age of 33. His ministry was only 3 years. My short ministry has already been longer than his. And in this time he had to train disciples, teach his followers, share the good news with those who didn’t know him. He had to keep the law perfectly, go to Jerusalem and be crucified when he was barely in his prime. And despite all this filling his time, he still carved out time to deal with individuals one on one. There were times when Jesus was busy, times when he was tired, times when he was hungry, and yet, when people who needed him asked for a little bit of that time, he willingly gave his nothing – taking the time to heal the sick, raise the dead, and assure people that they are forgiven. Think about that, the next time you feel like you don’t have time to take the time.

In fact, Jesus even took time out of his busy schedule for you. Did you know that? It was in the upper room, while he was celebrating the Passover with his disciples – the Last Supper – John 17 records a prayer of Jesus. He prays that God would glorify him at the proper time. He prayed for the disciples, and then he prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17:20-21). Jesus prayed that you would be one with each other and with him. One heart, one mind, one spirit, one will. And then, after Jesus finished praying, he went out to the Garden of Gethsemane where he would be handed over and crucified – taking the time to pay for every one of your sins – every time you had too much to trust in God. He forgave all of that in Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, serve the Lord with gladness – trusting that he will provide. Serve the Lord even when circumstances seem to indicate that you nothing. God will provide the time you need, the money you need, the heart you need to serve him through others.

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What it means to “Follow me” (July 21, 2019)

July 24, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

What it means to “Follow me”

Luke 9:51-62

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about this tiny house movement and living off the grid. If you haven’t heard, it’s basically all about striping it down to basics – living in a home about the size of an RV, unplugging from social media, internet, often even unplugging from the power grid. They use solar electricity and collect rain water. Basically, the withdraw from society completely. And why is that? Why do we sometimes just want to withdraw and not have to deal with anyone else? Well, because people can be annoying. They can be frustrating. They can be aggravating and stubborn. Sometimes we just don’t want to deal with people anymore!

That’s certainly the vibe we get from those living in Samaria, right? They were fine with themselves, but certainly wouldn’t welcome any Jews. Jesus was just passing through. He didn’t intend on staying long. He wasn’t trying to oppose them or make life difficult. But simply because he was heading to Jerusalem – and because the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews due to an age-old rivalry – they wanted to act like stubborn babies and not welcome Jesus. It’s enough to make you want to grab them by the ears and say, “What’s wrong with you?!” It’s enough to make James and John ask, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Lk 9:54). Might sound a little harsh, but haven’t you at least thought something like that before – even if somewhat jokingly? Sounds a little harsh, but God had done it before. When a king and his commanders had no respect for Elijah as a prophet of the Lord, God commanded that respect by sending down fire upon the commanders and their men. Then the people respected the prophet, and more importantly, the word of the Lord. So, James and John asked, “These people have no respect for you or who you are, should we teach them to respect you?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. “You don’t know what kind of spirit is influencing you. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s souls, but to save them” (Lk 9:55-56).

This really spoke to me this past week. Not that I would actually wish people physical harm, but I would love it if sometimes God would just teach people a lesson. Don’t harm them, but just show them that I’m right and they’re wrong. I rage within that they are so adamant about their position, and I whip up an unassailable argument that will surely put them in their place. “If they think they know their Bibles better than me… then I’ve got to teach them a lesson! I’ve got to set them ablaze with the true Word of God!” And as I’m putting together such an argument, I read these words, “You don’t know what kind of spirit is influencing you. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s souls, but to save them” (Lk 9:55-56). Am I responding in the spirit of winning them over and saving them? Or am I responding in the spirit of winning the argument and crushing them in the process?

Maybe for you it’s arguing with someone about the life inside a mother’s womb. And in the heat of arguing, it becomes more about being right than it is about showing that person how much Jesus loved that unborn child already. Or maybe you have friends living a homosexual lifestyle, and somewhere along the line you’ve forgotten that this is about sin and forgiveness and instead been focusing on changing their lifestyle without changing their heart. Or maybe you have been trying and trying to reach out to an atheist family member, but after years of stubborn rejection you forsake the Word of God and try to crush them only with arguments of reason, science, and morality. If that’s the case, you’ve lost the soul only to win the argument.

Jesus isn’t concerned with winning arguments. He isn’t concerned with setting the record straight or even concerned about judging them at this time. Now is the time for saving sinners. Now is the time to be patient with people. So instead of punishing the rude behavior, Jesus and his followers simply went to another village. His focus was on Jerusalem. His mission was to follow God’s plan. And he’s going to do that by taking their rudeness onto himself. He’s going to do that by enduring God’s fiery judgment for all people. He’s going to do it because he loves those people. He loves every one of them. He loves them so much that he would take their punishment of sin so that they wouldn’t have to. He would die their death, so they could live with him.

Think about what that means. That friend, who is so infuriating at times by their determination to reject the truth, was on Jesus mind as he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). That family member, who refuses to listen any more to the Word of God, is loved by Jesus so much that he was willing to die and endure the hell that such rejection deserves. Each and every person – even the frustrating ones – are loved by Jesus so much that he did not abandon them, he did not send fire down to consume them, but went straight to the cross to die for them. To die for me, and to die for you. Yes, you and I deserve to have fire called down on us as well. But the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s souls, but to save them. So, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And instead of destroying judgment, his mission was saving. Remember that the next time you want to call down figurative fire on people. Remember that you deserve just the same. May your prayer and my prayer be, “Jesus you love this person, help me love them too. Jesus, give me strength to be patient with the people you loved and died for.”

This puts things into a whole new perspective. Now, every person you see, yes, even the infuriating ones, is a person loved by Jesus, and a person that Jesus paid the ransom price for with his own blood. Be patient with these people, just as Jesus was patient with you. And as reach out to them with God’s love, don’t let your commitment be based on how they treat you, but on what Christ has done for you and for them. As you follow Jesus, be committed to Christ and his mission. It’s not easy work, but it is rewarding.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’” (Lk 9:57). In other words, I will do whatever it takes to serve you. I will go wherever you want me to go and do whatever you want me to do. No sacrifice will be too great. No hardship will be too difficult. A respectable statement! Jesus answers in the form of a warning. I hope you know what you are saying. I want you to know what you are getting yourself into before you make such a pledge. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). To follow Jesus means that you may not have a permanent dwelling place here on earth. It could mean that you will be moving constantly, because the work of Jesus is more concerned about heavenly things and saving souls than earthly treasures. In fact, not even the Son of Man himself would have the earthly comforts that many of us are so accustomed to. What this means for us today is that our biggest concerns should not be a beautiful home or a big salary. Sometimes, following Jesus and doing his work requires sacrificing such earthly comforts for the sake of reaching out to those whom Jesus loves and died for.

That’s the first thing to keep in mind when following Jesus, the second is even harder, I think. This time Jesus asks a man, “Follow me.” To which he replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:59-60). Ouch! A little harsh, don’t you think Jesus. This man’s father just died, and you are asking him to just suck it up, leave him behind, and not even pay respects? His request seems reasonable enough – can you cut him some slack?

First, and above all, you have to realize that Jesus that Jesus can read hearts, and he knows things that we can’t know. Therefore, he is able to say things that we wouldn’t say. And he knows exactly what he needs to say. And with that in mind, we know that he always says the right thing that someone needs to hear. With this in mind, take a careful look at what Jesus said. “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Lk 9:60). This could mean one of two things. Since physically dead people can’t actually bury anyone, he could be saying, “Let the undertakers handle the burial of the dead” – those in charge of the dead do the burying. Kind of an awkward understanding though. Better, and I think what Jesus is saying is, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own.” In this case, the work of God is more important than taking part in a non-Christian burial. Really, a non-Christian burial is not offering hope, not offering any real comfort, not proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection through Christ. A non-Christian burial is nothing more than putting a body into the ground. And in that case, if ever forced to decide between the two, God’s work should trump earthly work.

I know that still probably sounds harsh. But that is the fact. However, is Jesus saying that we should never attend a non-Christian funeral? Not exactly. Remember, Jesus knows things that we don’t know. And since he spoke in such a direct, black and white, now or never kind of way, we have to assume that the Jesus knew that if this man went now to bury his father, he wouldn’t have another opportunity to follow Jesus and do God’s work. Also, taken into account with the previous man, the bigger lesson that Jesus is teaching is that God’s work should be more important to us than earthly comforts; and second, God’s work should be more important to us than earthly relationships and obligations.

Which brings me to the third encounter. Yet another came to Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” To which Jesus replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:61-62). Wait a minute, Jesus, he can’t even say goodbye? Even Elijah let Elisha say goodbye! What gives? Again, remember that Jesus knows more. Jesus sees intentions and knows all things. Especially in the light of Elijah’s actions, we have to assume that Jesus knew something we don’t. Either, Jesus knew that this man, who seemed so ready, would falter in his desire to follow Jesus when he saw his relatives. Or, Jesus knew that the relatives would try to persuade this man not to go, not to follow Jesus, but stay home with them. Jesus must have known that this man’s desire to see his family was stronger than his desire to serve the Lord.

And again, we take this not just as an encounter between Jesus and a man who wants to follow him, but also as a teaching moment. All three of these encounters serve to build on one truth – What does it mean to Follow Jesus? 1) it means that if we are ever faced with a choice between earthly comforts and following Jesus, we must follow Jesus. 2) it means that if we are ever faced with a choice between earthly relationships or obligations and following Jesus, we must follow Jesus. And 3) when we follow Jesus, our focus and attention must be the work at hand.

Remember why you are doing this. There are people who don’t know Jesus, who maybe won’t welcome Jesus, who maybe have rejected Jesus. But regardless of all of that, Jesus loves them. And he paid dearly for them. He shed his blood for their sins and gave up his life for theirs because he loved them. These are the people in this room today. These are your family members and your friends. These are the people who want to argue doctrine and practice with you, or argue any other matter. Jesus loves them all. Jesus died for them all. Following Jesus means you love them too. Following Jesus means you live for them with your whole heart and whole life. It’s not going to be easy, but they are worth it. They are worth it for Jesus, just as you were worth it for Jesus. Lord God, give us a spirit of love to be patient with people and committed to Christ.

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Your Highlight Reel (July 14, 2019)

July 24, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Your Highlight Reel

Hebrews 11:24-26

Hebrews chapter 11 is known as the “Hall of Faith” chapter in the Bible. Walk through the figurative halls of this chapter and you see the walls lined with portraits of the greats! They’re all there. Abel, the first martyr for his faith. Noah, who built an ark believing that God would indeed send the flood. Abraham, who by faith left his home to go to a promised land. Who also believed that God would give him a son even though he was as good as dead. Jacob, Joseph, Moses. They’re all there! Many of the judges, kings and prophets – “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” (Heb 11:33).

How did they do it? “By faith” yes, but I share the same faith they do and I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think I could give up the kind of position that Moses had and take on the position of a slave. I don’t think I could give up such treasures or endure the kind of mistreatment that Moses did. I’d like to think I could, but I’m not always so sure. I’m not so sure my portrait will ever be hanging next to such greats as Noah, Abraham, and Moses. How did they do it? How did he do it.

Well, I realized that there’s a little more to the story than you might catch at first glance. Because looking at Hebrews it all sounds so good. “By faith Moses, when he had grown up,” saw the plight of his own people, his own flesh and blood and selflessly “refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:24-25). He put down his crown, cast aside his signet ring, left the palace and never thought twice about it – getting down in the mud with his true people and opposing the super power of his day. Sounds like the making of an epic story! Sounds like the selfless heart of a hero!

The thing is, these verses in Hebrews are kind of like the highlight reel of Moses’ life. They highlight some of the great things he had done. Nothing wrong with that. But if you want to see what really happened, how it all went down, you have to go back and look at the history book. Exodus gives us the raw history. And Stephen’s speech in Acts chapter 7 gives a bit more detail as well. You see, Moses may not have been as heroic and selfless as we idealize in our minds. Not at first, and certainly not on his own. What Hebrews 11 says about him remains true! No doubt about that. But Moses may not have been quite as eager to give up all that he had to respond to the Lord’s call.

No, Exodus 2 shows as that he was trying to be a bit of a ninja – a secret vigilante for justice. He knew his roots. He knew that he was a Hebrew by birth. And so when he went out to watch his people at their hard labor one day, he saw and Egyptian beating a Hebrew. The Bible says, “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Ex 2:12). He wanted to help his people, but he didn’t intend on giving up his high position to do so. Acts 7 adds a little more detail. It says, “he went to [the Hebrew’s] defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (Acts 7:24-25). Moses was trying to use his position and power to rescue his people – almost like Batman, the Dark Knight. But that is not what God had intended.

Word got around about Moses. Very quickly Pharaoh found out and tried to kill Moses for the treason he had committed. Moses was forced to flee his position, his power, and his wealth. He fled to Midian and lived with a shepherding people. There he stayed in hiding for forty years.

Well that sheds a bit of light on things. That makes the story a little more real – maybe even tarnishes his portrait hanging in the Hall of Faith you might think. But no, it doesn’t. You see, those great “Heroes of the Faith” aren’t in there by their own doing. The greatness of their faith isn’t at all by their own doing or choice. Really, behind or above every one of those portraits in the Hall of Faith should be a portrait of God himself. Because when life forced them in directions they didn’t want to go, when people around them became hostile, when means of support were running thin, every time it was God who carried them through. It is God who was backing, supporting, uplifting every single one of these heroes of faith – especially in their most difficult of times.

The fact is, sometimes we think it’s the things that God has blessed us with that we will use to do His work or bring more people to faith. Sometimes we think it’s the wealth we’ve acquired, the notable position in our community, or the superior education we have that can use to do God’s work. And don’t get me wrong, God can and does use these things. The Bible even specifically talks about faithfully managing our blessings to do his work. But sometimes we become too focused on the blessings themselves and forget about the “Blesser” – the one giving us these things. Sometimes we focus too much on what we have and what we are going to do with these things to achieve results that we forget that nothing will be achieved if God is not in it. Nothing will be achieved except that which God does. And he can use these blessings to do his work, or he can strip us of these blessings to do his work, reminding us of the one who is behind all that we do.

Make no mistake about it, God had blessed Moses. He blessed him with a high position of authority among the super power of that time. He blessed him with all the vast wealth of Egypt at his disposal. And historians and archaeologists have well documented the tremendous treasures of Egypt. He blessed him with a superior education. Remember, it’s the Egyptians who gave us great advancements in mathematics and science. God could have used all of this! In fact, he did use almost these exact same blessings about 400 years ago when Joseph was made second in command of all of Egypt, and brought his family down to safety during a famine, preserving the family line and promise of the Savior. But with Moses, God chose a different route. Yes, God was going to use Moses, but first he was going to strip him of his position, his power, and his wealth. In all human appearances, God was going to make Moses weak, so that God could build him up in his strength.

After a difficult period in his life, Moses learned to trust God, to put his faith in him and his plans for rescuing his people. He gained a new perspective on life and the blessings he had previously been given. “By faith Moses… chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:25-26). He returned to Egypt, not to seek mercy and take up his position again, but rather to side with his people and his God, bringing about deliverance for the Israelites according to God’s plan.

Remember that the next time you look at the wealth or lack there of and think, “I can’t do anything with this.” Or the next time you think about your position in life or humble education and think, “I can’t do anything with this.” Remember that it wasn’t until God stripped Moses of all of these things that he did his most impressive work through him. Remember, it wasn’t Moses or what he had that did such things, but God who backed him, supported him, and sustained him. It was through faith in God that Moses was able to refuse to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. It was through faith in God that he chose to be mistreated along with the people of God and view the many treasures of Egypt as fleeting. It was only through faith in God that he could consider persecution and disgrace for Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt. And by faith you look at what you have and say, “God will work through it.” Because by faith he could see what lay ahead. By faith he could see his Savior and reward in heaven.

You have that same faith in your Savior too. You know that his blood covers every wrong. You know that his perfect life stands in as a substitute for your own. You know, because he rose, that you too are looking forward to a reward which is of greater value than all the treasures of Egypt. And nothing can take that away! Have you been mistreated for associating with the people of God? Your reward is still safe. Have you been disgraced for the sake of Christ? The treasure of heaven is still yours. Are you struggling, persecuted, or just overwhelmed by everything you’ve faced recently? You need not fear, because your God is the one who can turn weakness into strength.

All those portraits in the hall of faith are upheld, supported, and uplifted by God. And there’s one more portrait in the Hall of Faith. It’s got your hair, your eyes, your features. In fact, it is you! The last verses of Hebrews 11 actually say just that. It says, “All of these were commended in Scripture by faith, yet they did not receive what was promised, because God had planned something better for us, namely, that they would not reach the goal apart from us” (Heb 11:39-40). Your portrait hangs there too in the exact same manner that all the others hang there – by faith. It’s by faith in your Savior that your life becomes a highlight reel just like all the rest. It’s by faith that God supports you, sustains you, and works through you no matter how much or how little you have.

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By faith we are changed (July 7, 2019)

July 11, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

By faith we are changed

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

This week I read an interesting article regarding the issue of blunt language in the Bible. I came across the article partly because of the recent release of the new EHV version of the Bible, but especially as I was considering how to treat this specific section of the Bible both in my sermon and in the printed bulletin. You’ve probably noticed, it’s quite specific and graphic. In fact, the Greek words used are even more graphic. The article posed the question, how do we translate sections of the Bible that are graphic and indelicate in the original Greek and Hebrew? How do we translate sections of the Bible that are rather harsh? Do we use euphemisms so as not to offend the reader? Or do we translate as blunt or direct as the original text would have sounded to the listener? Of course, the setting does matter. We would treat these sections of scripture differently with a Sunday School class than we would with an adult Bible study. But the article pointed out that the harsh language of the Bible is always used against idolatry and gross immorality. It is important, when studying Scripture to see both the beauty of what God designed, and the ugliness of going against God’s will. It’s a contrast that comes into clear view with this short reading.

On the one hand, we have a listing of sins written out in strong language. Some of these sins are almost embarrassing to talk about out loud. “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). Corinthians, don’t be deceived. These people will not enter heaven. Americans, central Texans, do not be deceived, these sins are still sins in God’s eyes. No, this isn’t a complete listing. It’s a “catch-all” kind of listing. It lists general categories, yet still focuses on some of the sins that would have been more prevalent in Corinthians society. Interestingly, that focus remains much the same today.

And if people want to try to explain away or excuse certain sins on the list, Paul says it twice, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will NOT inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor 6:9). Then after the list, he says it again. These people will NOT inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10). Make no mistake about it. Do not be deceived. Because there are many among you, Corinthians, who are deceived. And there are many among us today as well who are deceived. They go on living their lives, fully expecting to reach heaven, but will be surprised on the day they find out that this list has not changed. God has not changed.

So, what about you? Are you one of those listed that will not inherit the kingdom of God? Does this listing lay a finger on the ugliness of your own heart? Look at the list. “Immorality” doesn’t just mean physical actions. It’s immoral thoughts and desires. It’s crude joking. It’s in choosing what we watch and why we watch it. “Idolatry” comes in many forms. In Bible class we discussed that in our society it isn’t so much about false deities as it is about making our money, our time, even our children our gods. “Thievery and greed” cover not only actions, but thoughts and intentions. It covers coveting and not being content with what God has blessed us with. Did any of us succumb to “drunkenness” over the holiday weekend? Do we “slander” the good names of others for our own popularity – especially when we are safe behind a screen – or “swindle” and cheat in our business practices? It’s a pretty comprehensive list. I think there isn’t a one of us who can emerge without being covered with the muck and stain of sin.

And I think what’s most surprising is the audience. Paul is writing this letter to Corinthian believers. Believers who should have known better. Believers who were backsliding. In the earlier verses of chapter 6 Paul specifically condemns believers who were going to public courts to settle disputes between one another – essentially hanging their dirty laundry and hypocrisy out for everyone else to see. They cheat and do wrong to their very own brothers and sisters in the faith. And the same goes for us. We need to consider how we treat our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to consider the example that WE show not just on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday and for all the world to see. “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor 6:9) Paul asks accusingly. Yes, all these things that you deem so indecent and improper – especially to talk about among believers – well, sit down right next to them because you are backsliding. You too are one of them. You share in their loveless and selfish acts of sinfulness.

It really is amazing though how one phrase, even just one word can turn everything around. For shepherds living out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, one simple statement turned the mundane into the extraordinary. “Today… a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord” (Lk 2:11). They left their sheep, their livelihood, in the open field and went simply to sit at their Savior’s feet for a while. Because they knew what was more important. Disciples, confused and terrified that their teacher was crucified. Longing to be with him or hear his words. Now terrified of the Jews, yet one simple phrase melted that all away, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19) Jesus said as he stood among them, clearly alive and obviously the Christ. Followers of Jesus, reluctant to see him leave – ascend into heaven – are calmed and emboldened by their Lord as he says, “Surely I am with you always” (Mt 28:20).

And here, sinners who have just been thrust into the pits of hell because of the atrocities of our own hearts – thoughts and deeds too graphic and indecent to speak in public – are rescued, relieved, restored by just one word. “That is what some of you… WERE” (2 Cor 6:11). “That is what some of you were.” All packed into that one word is the acknowledgment of the realness of your sins, but also the truth that it is all in the past – that you have been completely changed. Your sins are gone, done, taken care of, and you are restored to live your future in a completely new way.

But how did this change take place? What happened so that I was changed – that was then, this is now? Paul uses three words to describe what happened. “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). “Washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified”. Each one of these words is complete in itself. He could have just used one of these words and the text would have meant the same thing. But Paul piles up these terms because each portrays how you were saved in a different way. Each describes the change in a different way.

The Bible often pictures sin as a stain, a filth that covers you. The best example I can think of is what I looked and felt like after doing a mud run. There wasn’t a clean patch of skin on me. I felt weighed down, stiff, and slow. That’s what sin does. But then I washed and felt clean, refreshed, and new! You have been washed, cleansed from the stain of sin.

The Bible also talks about how sins separate us from God. That’s really the opposite of sanctified. If you are holy or sanctified you are in the presence of God – that’s why this room is called the “Sanctuary.” The opposite of that is being removed from God’s presence – distant and far from him. And that is what our sins do. Because of their sinfulness, the people, even the priests of Israel had to offer a sacrifice before they even went into the holy place of the temple. That sacrifice was to atone for sin, to sanctify them and bring them close to God. Your atoning sacrifice was Christ. He was forsaken – distanced – by God for your sins so that you could be sanctified – brought close to him.

And finally, the Bible talks about guilt and innocence. The guilt of our sins. Really the word “justified” is a courtroom term used when the case has been presented and, in view of the evidence, the judge declares the defendant “not guilty,” “justified.” In this courtroom, Jesus is the judge – the one who will judge the living and the dead. Satan is the plaintiff – “Satan” actually means “accuser.” You are the defendant. Guess who your lawyer is? It’s Jesus. And what’s the evidence he brings to defend you against the charges of sin that Satan brings against you? Your lawyer, Jesus, shows the nail marks on his hands and feet, and the scar left from the spear in his side and says, “All those wrongs were mine. All those sins were laid on me. And I paid for them in full. These charges no longer stand against this child of mine.” The gavel comes down, “innocent,” “justified.”

So, brothers and sisters. When past guilt swells, when there are temptations surging within, when you are remorseful over something wrong and shameful you have just done, remember, “That is what you… WERE” (1 Cor 6:11). But now you stand washed from your baptism, leaving behind the stain of sin. You were sanctified by the sacrifice of Christ, and connected to it anew every time you partake of the body and blood in the sacrament of communion. You were justified by Christ who said, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) and “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). The same declaration you hear again and again whenever you read the Word of God.

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By Faith We Overcome Death (June 30, 2019)

July 1, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

By Faith We Overcome Death

Philippians 1:18-26

What would you do if I just rear ended you, and as we came out of our cars to exchange insurance info, I said, “Consider it pure joy”? What would you do to me? What if you were that Centurion, and your close and trusted friend became violently ill and was lying on their death bed, and I said, “Consider it pure joy”? What would you do if people came into your place of work, were speaking against some important point of your faith and you couldn’t stand up for your beliefs – because you were at work. Would you consider that “pure joy”?

James is writing to Christians scattered throughout the nations during a time when persecution for Christian faith was very common, and he encourages them by saying, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jas 1:2).

Consider it pure joy?! How is such an outrageous thought even possible? Who would consider trials and suffering joy?! Well, there’s actually something in common use today that might help put this all into perspective. In 1818 an English civil engineer devised a machine that was used to reform stubborn and idle convicts in prisons. Very quickly it popped up in penitentiaries all over Britain and the United States. It was originally called the “tread-wheel.” On this tread-wheel, prisoners would step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster exercise machine. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. For this reason, it eventually became known as a “treadmill.” Prisoners would walk on these “treadmills” for 8 hour shifts, leaving them too tired to get into trouble. Believe it or not, some people today actually consider what used to be a grueling prison device as pure joy! Well, I should clarify. Maybe working out on a treadmill is still grueling, but the results that people see and feel through such a grueling process leads to joy in struggling through it.

You can really think of your faith like a muscle. Your faith gets tougher and stronger when it feels resistance and overcomes. So experiencing suffering and trials – though grueling – can mature your faith. When you have to sweat, be frustrated, wait and persevere, faith grows!

But here’s where we have to pause and talk about faith itself. What is faith exactly, and why is it good when it grows? I think most people think of faith as something they have to have, something they have to work on, something that they need to take time and effort to build and grow so that they can reach a certain level and be saved by their own strength of faith. “Well, yeah, isn’t that what you just told us pastor?” Well, not exactly.

Really, to understand faith, you have to forget about faith entirely. Don’t worry how big or small it is. Don’t question whether you have it or not. Pretend it’s not even a thing. Now, imagine you are facing your biggest trial to date. Sickness in the family. Lost your job. Disaster struck your home and you haven’t been keeping up with insurance payments – maybe all of that combined. What’s going to get you through? And you can’t say “my faith”. That’s not a thing, remember? What’s going to get you through. Or maybe I should say, “Who’s going to get you through?” It’s God, right? It’s always been God who get’s you through the most difficult times and every obstacle.

Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we are overconfident and think that our own abilities will get us through. Sometimes we think that by our own will and determination we will make it. Sometimes we look to our faith and hope it’s big enough to get us through. But faith in what? Faith in our own faith? Faith is pointless unless it holds onto something. Faith is really just trust in something. Your trust ultimately isn’t in yourself. Your trust isn’t in your faith. You trust in God! He is the one who can level a heavily fortified city while still saving those who trust in him. He is the one who heals the sick and raises the dead. He is the one who does big things. Isn’t that why God sometimes makes us face big problems? So that he can lead us to him as the big solution! So, your faith growing and becoming stronger isn’t really about your faith. It’s about God becoming a bigger part of your life. It’s about relying on God more and more, because he is the one who does big things. And when you learn to rely on him, you will not lack anything (Jas 1:4). That’s the end result of trials. That’s why we can consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds.

Unfortunately, so many flee from God when trouble strikes, thinking that he must be the one sending it. But I would ask, do you really know God? Do you know his character? Have you seen how he deals with those who trust in him? The only reason he would allow trouble into your life is if he meant it to strengthen you and better you. The problem is, sometimes we aren’t in it for the long game. We want to see immediate results and quickly become impatient with the grueling trials we face. But God is in it for the long game. He’s got the bigger picture in mind. And sometimes that big picture may span months, years, even more than a lifetime.

It’s true. Some of the things we face in life are too big for us to handle. And when that happens, don’t give up. You have a God who does big things. Turn to him in prayer and you will find relief.

But, does God really listen to me? How can I even come to him with the past I’ve had? It says right here, “God… gives generously to all without finding fault” (Jas 1:5). Because when repentant sinners are forgiven by their loving Savior, they are really forgiven! All your faults, all your history, all that guilt is dropped – forgiven because of Christ’s sacrifice. The sin that once did separate you from God has been nailed to the cross with Jesus. And when Jesus died, your sins died with him. So as God’s forgiven children you don’t have to feel unworthy or guilty when you come to your Father for help. He’s no longer interested in finding fault with you, he’s laid that on Jesus. Now, he’s only interested in helping you.

James goes on, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt” (Jas 1:6). And this goes back to the faith thing. If you come to God in prayer, do you come believing that he can do this?

Sometimes when I go on vacation or go on a trip, I ask my neighbor to help me mow the lawn and keep an eye on the house. I ask this neighbor, because I know he has a mower and the time to do it. I also trust that he has the heart to do it. And therefore I ask fully expecting to hear a yes from him. Do you pray with the same kind of attitude? When you pray, do you come with full confidence in God’s unlimited love, unlimited power, and unlimited wisdom? Do you pray and not doubt that God can do this and will do this? If not, then why are you even praying? If you come to God in prayer but aren’t sure if he is capable of doing this, then aren’t you really saying that you do not believe or trust fully in God? Aren’t you really saying that God may not be the one who can do big things in my life? “When you ask, you must believe and not doubt” (Jas 1:6).

Of course, there is a slight caveat – but hear me out. This caveat is not on God, it’s on us. We pray trusting fully in his unlimited love and power, but also pray trusting in his unlimited wisdom. And what that means is we trust that God knows better. He knows best. We come humbly trusting that if God’s answer to my prayer is “No,” it’s not because he can’t, and it’s not because he doesn’t love me. It’s because I’ve asked for the wrong thing at this time, and he knows what’s best. He will only do what’s best. That’s why we pray, “Your will be done.”

And God’s will will be done. His will will do big things in your life – through trials of many kinds. Your whole life will be one of exercising and growing your faith – your trust in God. Making him a bigger part of your life every day. All believers need to grow in this. All believers need to grow in this kind of spiritual toughness, because you are under daily assault from Satan. He does not rest. Satan will try to distract you, trade your spiritual treasures for trash, sell your future for immediate gratification, grow tired of the Word, chase illusions, or despair of any living communication or relationship you have with God.

It’s tough when your life feels like you are under siege. But think of it in this way. When life feels like you’re in a castle that’s under siege… Missiles are coming in from different angles, striking the walls of the castle, and the castle is shuttering. Boom, boom, boom. The army is getting closer and the castle is shaking. It’s actually a terrifying place to be – in the castle. But there’s one place where it’s not so scary. And that’s in the dungeon. That’s right, in the dungeon. And not in the dungeon, because it’s like a basement and that’s the safest place to be during something like a tornado or a siege. No, it’s not so terrifying in the dungeon when you are the prisoner, and the armies surrounding the castle are not the enemy, but the armies of your Father come to rescue you. That’s what the Bible says this life is, right? Satan is the prince of this world. But God is ultimately King of kings and Lord of lords. One day God’s going to rescue you. He’s going to take you out of this world. It may be when he comes back. It may be earlier than that. No matter when it happens, his goal for you, his mission is that you remain connected to him, faithful to him, until the day he comes to rescue you.

And so, with that in mind, you rejoice – because your victory is getting closer. Get news from the doctor, “You’ve got cancer” Boom! And you feel the rafters shutter. Something happens and your retirement savings are gone. Boom! Get a call from someone you thought was your friend, and now they are your enemy. Boom! Or you just can’t sleep at night and the devil is hounding your conscience with a past sin, or something you want to do. Boom! Understand all of those shutterings as the Lord’s work to exercise your faith and bring you closer to him. Finally, one day, the whole thing is going to come down. The stones collapse, the sun is shining in your hair, and there’s your Father! “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance…. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:2-3,12). So every blow that causes the rafters to shake in your life is really a blow against Satan’s kingdom – loosening his hold on your life and making God a bigger part of it.

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By Faith We Do Big Things (June 23, 2019)

July 1, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

By Faith We Do Big Things

James 1:2-12

What would you do if I just rear ended you, and as we came out of our cars to exchange insurance info, I said, “Consider it pure joy”? What would you do to me? What if you were that Centurion, and your close and trusted friend became violently ill and was lying on their death bed, and I said, “Consider it pure joy”? What would you do if people came into your place of work, were speaking against some important point of your faith and you couldn’t stand up for your beliefs – because you were at work. Would you consider that “pure joy”?

James is writing to Christians scattered throughout the nations during a time when persecution for Christian faith was very common, and he encourages them by saying, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jas 1:2).

Consider it pure joy?! How is such an outrageous thought even possible? Who would consider trials and suffering joy?! Well, there’s actually something in common use today that might help put this all into perspective. In 1818 an English civil engineer devised a machine that was used to reform stubborn and idle convicts in prisons. Very quickly it popped up in penitentiaries all over Britain and the United States. It was originally called the “tread-wheel.” On this tread-wheel, prisoners would step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster exercise machine. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. For this reason, it eventually became known as a “treadmill.” Prisoners would walk on these “treadmills” for 8 hour shifts, leaving them too tired to get into trouble. Believe it or not, some people today actually consider what used to be a grueling prison device as pure joy! Well, I should clarify. Maybe working out on a treadmill is still grueling, but the results that people see and feel through such a grueling process leads to joy in struggling through it.

You can really think of your faith like a muscle. Your faith gets tougher and stronger when it feels resistance and overcomes. So experiencing suffering and trials – though grueling – can mature your faith. When you have to sweat, be frustrated, wait and persevere, faith grows!

But here’s where we have to pause and talk about faith itself. What is faith exactly, and why is it good when it grows? I think most people think of faith as something they have to have, something they have to work on, something that they need to take time and effort to build and grow so that they can reach a certain level and be saved by their own strength of faith. “Well, yeah, isn’t that what you just told us pastor?” Well, not exactly.

Really, to understand faith, you have to forget about faith entirely. Don’t worry how big or small it is. Don’t question whether you have it or not. Pretend it’s not even a thing. Now, imagine you are facing your biggest trial to date. Sickness in the family. Lost your job. Disaster struck your home and you haven’t been keeping up with insurance payments – maybe all of that combined. What’s going to get you through? And you can’t say “my faith”. That’s not a thing, remember? What’s going to get you through. Or maybe I should say, “Who’s going to get you through?” It’s God, right? It’s always been God who get’s you through the most difficult times and every obstacle.

Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we are overconfident and think that our own abilities will get us through. Sometimes we think that by our own will and determination we will make it. Sometimes we look to our faith and hope it’s big enough to get us through. But faith in what? Faith in our own faith? Faith is pointless unless it holds onto something. Faith is really just trust in something. Your trust ultimately isn’t in yourself. Your trust isn’t in your faith. You trust in God! He is the one who can level a heavily fortified city while still saving those who trust in him. He is the one who heals the sick and raises the dead. He is the one who does big things. Isn’t that why God sometimes makes us face big problems? So that he can lead us to him as the big solution! So, your faith growing and becoming stronger isn’t really about your faith. It’s about God becoming a bigger part of your life. It’s about relying on God more and more, because he is the one who does big things. And when you learn to rely on him, you will not lack anything (Jas 1:4). That’s the end result of trials. That’s why we can consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds.

Unfortunately, so many flee from God when trouble strikes, thinking that he must be the one sending it. But I would ask, do you really know God? Do you know his character? Have you seen how he deals with those who trust in him? The only reason he would allow trouble into your life is if he meant it to strengthen you and better you. The problem is, sometimes we aren’t in it for the long game. We want to see immediate results and quickly become impatient with the grueling trials we face. But God is in it for the long game. He’s got the bigger picture in mind. And sometimes that big picture may span months, years, even more than a lifetime.

It’s true. Some of the things we face in life are too big for us to handle. And when that happens, don’t give up. You have a God who does big things. Turn to him in prayer and you will find relief.

But, does God really listen to me? How can I even come to him with the past I’ve had? It says right here, “God… gives generously to all without finding fault” (Jas 1:5). Because when repentant sinners are forgiven by their loving Savior, they are really forgiven! All your faults, all your history, all that guilt is dropped – forgiven because of Christ’s sacrifice. The sin that once did separate you from God has been nailed to the cross with Jesus. And when Jesus died, your sins died with him. So as God’s forgiven children you don’t have to feel unworthy or guilty when you come to your Father for help. He’s no longer interested in finding fault with you, he’s laid that on Jesus. Now, he’s only interested in helping you.

James goes on, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt” (Jas 1:6). And this goes back to the faith thing. If you come to God in prayer, do you come believing that he can do this?

Sometimes when I go on vacation or go on a trip, I ask my neighbor to help me mow the lawn and keep an eye on the house. I ask this neighbor, because I know he has a mower and the time to do it. I also trust that he has the heart to do it. And therefore I ask fully expecting to hear a yes from him. Do you pray with the same kind of attitude? When you pray, do you come with full confidence in God’s unlimited love, unlimited power, and unlimited wisdom? Do you pray and not doubt that God can do this and will do this? If not, then why are you even praying? If you come to God in prayer but aren’t sure if he is capable of doing this, then aren’t you really saying that you do not believe or trust fully in God? Aren’t you really saying that God may not be the one who can do big things in my life? “When you ask, you must believe and not doubt” (Jas 1:6).

Of course, there is a slight caveat – but hear me out. This caveat is not on God, it’s on us. We pray trusting fully in his unlimited love and power, but also pray trusting in his unlimited wisdom. And what that means is we trust that God knows better. He knows best. We come humbly trusting that if God’s answer to my prayer is “No,” it’s not because he can’t, and it’s not because he doesn’t love me. It’s because I’ve asked for the wrong thing at this time, and he knows what’s best. He will only do what’s best. That’s why we pray, “Your will be done.”

And God’s will will be done. His will will do big things in your life – through trials of many kinds. Your whole life will be one of exercising and growing your faith – your trust in God. Making him a bigger part of your life every day. All believers need to grow in this. All believers need to grow in this kind of spiritual toughness, because you are under daily assault from Satan. He does not rest. Satan will try to distract you, trade your spiritual treasures for trash, sell your future for immediate gratification, grow tired of the Word, chase illusions, or despair of any living communication or relationship you have with God.

It’s tough when your life feels like you are under siege. But think of it in this way. When life feels like you’re in a castle that’s under siege… Missiles are coming in from different angles, striking the walls of the castle, and the castle is shuttering. Boom, boom, boom. The army is getting closer and the castle is shaking. It’s actually a terrifying place to be – in the castle. But there’s one place where it’s not so scary. And that’s in the dungeon. That’s right, in the dungeon. And not in the dungeon, because it’s like a basement and that’s the safest place to be during something like a tornado or a siege. No, it’s not so terrifying in the dungeon when you are the prisoner, and the armies surrounding the castle are not the enemy, but the armies of your Father come to rescue you. That’s what the Bible says this life is, right? Satan is the prince of this world. But God is ultimately King of kings and Lord of lords. One day God’s going to rescue you. He’s going to take you out of this world. It may be when he comes back. It may be earlier than that. No matter when it happens, his goal for you, his mission is that you remain connected to him, faithful to him, until the day he comes to rescue you.

And so, with that in mind, you rejoice – because your victory is getting closer. Get news from the doctor, “You’ve got cancer” Boom! And you feel the rafters shutter. Something happens and your retirement savings are gone. Boom! Get a call from someone you thought was your friend, and now they are your enemy. Boom! Or you just can’t sleep at night and the devil is hounding your conscience with a past sin, or something you want to do. Boom! Understand all of those shutterings as the Lord’s work to exercise your faith and bring you closer to him. Finally, one day, the whole thing is going to come down. The stones collapse, the sun is shining in your hair, and there’s your Father! “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance…. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:2-3,12). So every blow that causes the rafters to shake in your life is really a blow against Satan’s kingdom – loosening his hold on your life and making God a bigger part of it.

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