Sermons

An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church Acts” (September 27, 2020)

October 1, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church Acts”

Matthew 21:28-32

Livestream link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5Qtbs7HNTk&ab_channel=TrinityEv.LutheranChurch-WELS

 

Are you just “playing church” or are you actively being the Church? There is a difference. Over the past 4 weeks we’ve been talking about God’s Rally Cry for the Church. First, Jesus demonstrated that The Church is for all by making a journey of hundreds of miles to give an outsider, not just crumbs, but the bread of life! Then, Jesus pointed to the fortress protecting you, his Church – the confession that he is the Christ. Firmly grounded in this truth, The Church will not fall. He reinforces you, even when it seems you are being pushed back. He makes you like a wall of bronze, reassuring you that The Church is “Tanky”. Then he turned your heart to why we never give up in this earthly battle – to win over the lost. Because The Church cares. Because God’s desire is not the death of the wicked, but that they turn and live!

You know what comes after the Rally Cry, right? The charge into battle. So, are you with me?! Are you with your Lord?! If so, respond not just with your words, but by your actions. God’s Rally Cry is: The Church acts.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Of course! Why would we speak and then not act?” But there were those in Jesus’ day who were really good at “playing church,” but not so good at actively being the church. There were those in Jesus’ day who knew the Scriptures backward and forward. They could easily quote the Scriptures and readily had at the tip of their tongues a passage for any occasion. Their prayers would flow beautifully with exquisite words and passionate petitions. They followed all of God’s decrees to the “T”. They could even be distinguished by the clothes they wore with long tassels and large phylacteries – boxes on their foreheads that contained passages from Scripture. If anyone was doing all the right things, it was these Pharisees, elders, and chief priests. They certainly seemed to talk the talk AND walk the walk.

But it’s to these people that Jesus told a short parable – a simple story meant to teach a deeper truth. “What do you think?” Jesus asked, “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (Mt 21:28-31). Which one actually did the work?

The answer was not difficult. “’The first,’ They answered” (Mt 21:31), and so convicted themselves. What is the work the Father wants? What is the work our Heavenly Father desires? Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn 6:29). “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him” (Mt 21:32). Yes, you know the Scriptures, but you do not believe them because you do not understand them. Yes, you say all the right things, but these are empty words. Yes, you appear to be doing all the right things, but you are just “playing church.” In fact, it’s worse than just “playing church” because you believe not in the one God sent, but in your own words and actions – these have become your salvation, and so they are your condemnation.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, why are we here? Why do we gather week after week as a congregation? Yes, it is to hear God’s Word and receive the gifts of the Spirit through it. Yes, it is to repent of sin and be forgiven. Yes, it is to worship and praise the Lord God our Savior. But why? Because we are supposed to? Because that’s what good Christians do week after week? Or is the purpose so that you can step off the battlefield for a moment when you walk through those doors. So that you can take off the armor for a moment and bear your heart. So that you can come in weary and burdened and find rest? Is it so that you can regain strength from the bread of life, be refreshed by the living water, receive encouragement from fellow brothers and sisters in arms, and go back into battle strengthened and renewed by your Savior who leads the charge?! What we say and do here must not be left behind at the doors but be taken with you out into the world! We aren’t just playing church for an hour a week. We are the Church! And the Church follows the Savior’s charge into the battles we face each and every day.

I know how it often goes, though. I’ve been there too. Especially, for me, it happens at mission rallies or Pastors Conferences. I receive all this exciting information. I learn new techniques and glean ideas from fellow brothers in the ministry. The closing service usually has a moving sermon to “go and work today in the vineyard.” I’m all fired up in the moment and ready to serve. But… then I get back to my home and my office, and the daily tasks quickly pile up. Or, the task is a lot more daunting than I expected once I leave the safety and security of my brothers in ministry and I’m out in the thick of battle. It’s easy to say the right things, but then leave them at the door during the rest of the week.

This can result in a disconnect between who I claim to be on Sunday morning, and who my actions reveal me to be during the week. Like the second son, we too can give the right response, “I will, sir!” But then fall short on our actions. Brothers and sisters, this should not be. It should not be that we bear fruit here on Sunday morning, but then leave those fruits behind and live the rest of the week like a fruitless tree. Are we living two separate lives? Are we playing church here on Sunday morning and living a completely separate life the rest of the week? The Church is here to act. The Church is here to be salt and light – not just among ourselves, but in our homes and communities! Not just for an hour a week, but every day. Do not honor God with your lips but keep your hearts far from him.

It’s easy to say the right things and fail to follow through. Jesus words convict us too. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt 21:31). Yes, these blatant sinners – considered a lost cause, unworthy of being ministered to – are entering the kingdom ahead of us because they believed when John showed them the way of righteousness and called them to repentance and we have convinced ourselves that playing church is good enough – that by going through the motions we are doing the right things.

See the problem here. It’s easy to play church, but we sometimes fail to be the church. And this lack of action, shows a lack of what?… What is it in your life? Is it a lack of commitment behind the words you speak? Is it a laziness of faith that assumes everything will be taken care of by someone else, so I can sit on the sidelines? Is it that you have not examined your gifts to see how you might serve? Is it a lack of trust in your Savior who goes with you into every battle and is your strength and power – knocking down enemies and changing hearts with just his word? See the problem here. Sin is not just found in actions. It can be inactivity as well.

Thankfully, that’s not the only part of the parable. Thankfully, there’s another side to it. “[The father] went to the first [son] and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went” (Mt 21:28-29). This is the son who did what the father wanted. Despite his initial response, his sinfulness, this son “changed his mind.” And guess what that word for “changing” his mind can also mean? “Repent.” It’s the same word that Jesus uses for “repent.” Very literally it means to “turn.” There is still time for repentance. “Repent!” Ezekiel says, “Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ez 18:30-32).

That’s exactly what the tax collectors and prostitutes did when they listened to John the Baptist. “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did” (Mt 21:32). Remember what I said earlier, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn 6:29). They trusted in the One God sent and believed it when Jesus said they were not a lost cause, but that they could turn and live! Though the elders and chief priests could recite Scripture, these sinners actually understood and believed it!

You are not a lost cause either. You too can turn and live. The Psalm we would have sung today – if we were doing our full service – is Psalm 25, which says, “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good” (Ps 25:4-7).

Brothers and sisters, there still is time to repent. Though we have at times been like the first son – saying no to our Father and living in sin – there is time to repent today and receive the righteousness Christ won for you! And, though we have been like the second son – saying all the right things, but not following through with action beyond these doors – there is time to repent today.

What might that look like? It might be, not just saying, “I’ll pray for you,” but actually doing it! One thing I’ve found helpful is to do it right then and there. If I’m on the phone with my friend and they tell me something they need prayers for, I try to pray with them right then and there. Or, right after I get off the phone. I’ve done this over text too. When I catch myself texting, “I’ll pray for you.” The very next text I send is a prayer. It shouldn’t feel strange or awkward to take a moment and pray with a brother or sister. We are the Church, and the Church acts! Praying is like breathing for the Christian – breathing in God’s Word and exhaling it through our prayers.

Again, it’s not just saying, “God above all” as we confess our faith here. But demonstrating that in the way you prioritize your own calendar and events. It’s not just being here and confessing your faith to fellow Christians, but then learning how to do the same in your daily life – how to confess your faith to others. And growing in our comfort and confidence in doing this. Tell a friend, or grocery store worker if it comes up in conversation, “Hey, we just talked about that in church!” Or “Let me tell you about something that has helped me in such a situation.” Make faith your native language, not just a second language you use on Sunday.

More and more lets practice taking our faith outside of these walls, beyond those doors. Because we aren’t just here to “play church.” We are here to be the church. That means coming in these doors – perhaps weary from battle and burdened with cares. It means laying that all at the cross, bearing your heart, and drinking deeply from his word for comfort, strength, and encouragement. Then it means donning that armor of God once again as you leave this place – taking Christ to the world! Brothers and sisters in arms, you’ve heard God’s rally cry! Now let’s follow him out into our community and be the church in our words and in our work.

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God’s Rally Cry: “The Church Cares!” (Sept 20, 2020)

September 23, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church Cares!”

Matthew 18:15-20

Watch our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZCJanqx-cg

 

Would you go next door in the middle of the night and wake up your sleeping neighbor? No, of course not. It’s needless. It’s rude. It’s not being neighborly or loving. Well, let me add a bit of context and ask you again. It’s 2am. You see a strange orange glow out your window. You open your window to get a better look and immediately smell smoke. Realizing your neighbors house is on fire and they are in serious danger, what is the loving thing to do? Let them sleep? Or wake them before they are harmed?

Today we are going to talk about how to save a life. How to really show your love and concern for a fellow believer as you bravely and tirelessly try to save their life. God’s rally cry for the Church today is: “The Church cares.”

The common thinking today is that it is loving to let people live their own lives. Let them live by their own convictions and don’t meddle in their affairs. It is loving for you to let them live how they want to live. But, is it really? If you understand what sin is, then you realize that letting someone continue to live in unrepented sin is like letting your neighbor sleep in a burning house. It means their destruction. It means their death. Sin is damaging. It is damaging to the person who commits it. It is damaging to the name of Christ. And, it is damaging to all who bear the name of Christ. Don’t ignore sin. Don’t expect it to go away by itself. Don’t say you’d rather not get involved. Don’t wait for the brother to come to you. Jesus says, “Go.” The fellow Christian and the Church may be the fallen sinner’s only lifeline.

And I should mention, before we get too far, that this section of Scripture – what we are talking about today – is specifically dealing with a “brother or sister.” In other words, this is someone who is a part of the Church, a fellow believer. We aren’t to be going to all our neighbors’ houses and pointing out their sins if they don’t even believe in Jesus or the forgiveness he won. There’s a different approach to that. But here, for those who know God’s will and trust in the forgiveness that Jesus won, he says “Go!”

This also appears to be a private matter – where a fellow brother or sister has sinned directly against you. Jesus says go. But go reflecting Christ’s love. Go because this is a fellow redeemed – someone that Jesus shed his blood for, died for, and brought into his family. Go because this is one of Jesus’ precious sheep, yet they are wandering from the flock. Go before it may be too late.

And go, only with the goal of winning them over. Satan tries to make Christian discipline seem like the height of hypocrisy or meddling. His motive is the keep that fallen brother’s sins bound like his own for all eternity in hell – to keep them locked in that burning house because it’s none of your business. But if you go, not with the goal of reforming irritating habits or changing the quirks of their personality, but really go with the goal of “winning them over,” you might just save their life! In fact, Jesus says, “If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Mt 18:15). That “if” there, it’s a special grammatical form which indicates a good probability that they will listen. Yes, brothers and sisters in the Lord are sinners who will hurt one another from time to time. But we should have positive expectations that a loving rebuke will lead to confession and repentance.

So how do you go about this goal of winning them over? Jesus lays out the method. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so the ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17).

It’s a slow and deliberate process carried out with patience and love. First, go privately, so that offense and embarrassment might be contained, and pardon and forgiveness might all the more readily flow. If that doesn’t change their course, then go with two or three, that the matter might be underscored without making tongues wag throughout the congregation. Their presence adds weight to the testimony that the brother or sister has sinned and must repent. Finally, also in love, the matter is taken before the Church. Not, tell everyone in the entryway so that the whole church knows. But take it to the leaders of the church – the pastor and elders.

It’s a step by step process that may take some time and patience. Remember, the goal is to win them over. So it’s not, 1, 2, 3 strikes, your out. You may go to them repeatedly before bringing others into the matter. You may continue going to them a number of times before bringing it before the church. If our intention is to show God’s love, then remember what he said in the first reading, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” (Ez 33:11).

There’s a song that came out over a decade ago called “How to save a life”. It’s by a band called “The Fray”. The song is about talking with a friend and pointing out some things they probably don’t want to hear. There may be some resistance, but stay up all night with them if that’s what it takes to save their life. Sit in the pits with them and hear out their side of things so that you fully understand the situation. Take time and patience. Invest in them that they might be restored.

If they still don’t listen – to you, to a couple others, even to the church – then, finally, treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector. But don’t misunderstand this. Yes, it means excommunication. Yes, it means that you no longer share in doctrinal fellowship with them because they refuse to confess that sin is sin. But remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. He reached out to Matthew, a tax collector, and made him one of his own disciples. He conversed with the woman at the well who had marriage problems. He associated with sinners, pointed them to him their Savior and even gave up his life for them. Treating them as a pagan or tax collector doesn’t mean you never speak to them again. It means you are reaching out to them anew. It does mean you are no longer in doctrinal fellowship, but this too is meant in love. The weight of this action is meant to shake them to their senses, open their eyes, so that they admit their wrongs and turn from them. Even in this final step, you show them love and continue to reach out to them, throwing them a lifeline of repentance and forgiveness. You keep trying to save their life.

And perhaps in this, too often the essential element of prayer is lacking. All while we are doing the above, we are to do so imploring the blessing of the Father, who even more than we desires the sinner’s salvation. Pray that the Father will enable us to minister in Christian love. Pray that he will give us appropriate words. Pray that the Holy Spirit will work through our words to touch the sinner’s heart. Pray with real confidence that the Father hears our prayers and will graciously grant the blessings we seek.

So, we talked about the motive of love behind reaching out to win over a brother or sister. We’ve talked about the method or ratcheting up the weight of the conviction, done with great patience and ceaseless prayer. Finally, lets talk about the means. It is the law and the gospel used at the proper time.

It is doing the tough thing and clearly proclaiming the law of the Lord. Saying, “This is what Scripture says, and what you are doing has crossed the line.” And I’ll be honest, this isn’t often a comfortable thing to do. But it’s one of the reasons we gather together as a congregation – to curb one another when needed. And God tells us this task is not optional. No one wants to wake their neighbor at 2am, but if their house were on fire and you let them sleep, you are not just loveless and careless. You are a killer. In the same way God holds each one of us responsible – especially in cases where it is a private matter and no one else knows – holds us responsible to point out sin and lead them to repentance. In the reading from Ezekiel, God is speaking primarily to his called servants, saying, If you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, “I will hold you accountable for their blood” (Ez 33:8). It’s intensified for called ministers, but what if the minister never knows about it? In Matthew Jesus urges every fellow Christian, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault” (Mt 18:15). It’s not optional. Nor should we even consider it an option when we realize the gravity of sin. With the law driven deeply into our hearts, God then reminds us why he has given us this job: because of his grace and his desire for the salvation of all mankind. The responsibility of waking our neighbor asleep in a burning house becomes a joyful privilege when he emerges safely from the smoke. So also our task of keeping our brothers and sisters from straying is a joy. Because not only do we clearly proclaim the law, but if they listen and we have won them over, we also get to freely offer the forgiveness of the Lord.

Already at the time of the sin Jesus was there. All through the process of seeking after the brother who sinned, Jesus was there and was also seeking. Jesus was there to hear the prayers of his people and grant his blessings of guidance and strength. And, finally, Jesus is there, freely offering the forgiveness he won for all people so that those who turn to him in repentance would not die, but live.

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God’s Rally Cry: “The Church is ‘tanky'” (September 13, 2020)

September 16, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church Cares”

Matthew 18:15-20

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/8Yrm9kdhL9Q

 

We are continuing our sermon series on “God’s Rally Cry for the Church” today. And I want to underscore one of the reasons for such a militaristic series theme. We are in the Church militant. Our lives here on earth are going to be a struggle and a fight from the day we are born till the day we die. We fight against our own sinful nature. We fight against the temptations and deceptions of Satan. We fight against the evil of this world. These all try to tear us away from our victory in Christ. One day, we will be in the “Church triumphant” in heaven. But right now, we are in the Church militant. We continue to fight our daily battles. And, I know, at times it may feel like you are getting nowhere in the battle. It may feel like you are being pushed back, turned around, and fleeing. Some days it may just feel like you’ve lost completely and raised the flag of surrender. But do not despair. God has already won the victory. Although we still fight and struggle, the church is “tanky”. (That’s a term used by video game players to describe a character who can take a hit in a fight, whose not going to go down easily).

On the morning of May 15th, 1940, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and said, “We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” Churchill, attempting to offer some comfort to Reynaud, reminded the Prime Minister of all the times the Germans had broken through the Allied lines in the First World War only to be stopped. In other words, the allied forces were “tanky”. Reynaud, however, was inconsolable.

Churchill flew to Paris on May 16th. He immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and was preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a somber meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, “Where is the strategic reserve?” that had saved Paris in the First World War. Gamelin replied: “There is none. Inferior numbers, inferior equipment, inferior methods.”

Do you ever feel like you have inferior numbers, inferior equipment, and inferior methods as you strive to be salt and light in the world? Are you are fired up to live your faith and talk about your faith, only to have a wet blanket thrown on that zeal again and again? Maybe you’ve even been convinced that you are the one troubling the world. If you would just keep quiet and keep your convictions to yourself, then the world would just be a more peaceful place. Why do I even try? Why continue to try when the world is unmoved, unchanged by what I have to say? I sometimes feel like I am caught between a rock and a hard place.

The monstrous impenitence of Judah and the unbending justice of God caught Jeremiah between them. He staggered under the burden. And although he fought ferociously against it, he could not overcome the cold despair which slowly numbed his faith. The people of Judah refused to listen, and instead saw the prophet as an enemy. As Ahab once pointed an accusing finger at Elijah, saying, “You are the one who troubles Israel,” so Jeremiah’s contemporaries lashed out at him. If it wasn’t for him and his incessant preaching of judgment, the land would be at peace. The Lord told him at the very beginning of his ministry that all would oppose him. Now the reality of that prophecy was bearing down on Jeremiah with all its force.

In an effort to fight off the damp darkness creeping into his soul, the prophet turned to the Word, to his certain knowledge of the Lord’s character. He confessed that the Lord knew the anguish of his heart and felt with him and for him. He knew the Lord would protect him. He had been faithful to his calling despite the bullets fired back at him, zinging past his ears, grazing his arms, and stinging his flesh. How many insults had stung him! How often he had been called the fool for his message! How many times the people of Judah had thrown the question in his face, “Where is the fulfillment of the Lord’s Word?” when he prophesied the destruction of Judah.

He had always found his strength in the Lord’s Word. God’s Word was his fortress, his support, his strength in life. What joy, what force of life came to him as he devoured it! How it lifted his soul and refreshed his spirit! Yet, this time, Jeremiah let the comfort of the Word slip from him. He fell back on his own strength, and soon the pain overwhelmed him. The blackness of despair drawing everything into itself, engulfed the prophet’s faith, hope, and very spirit. He was being overrun. He could not hold back his doubts any longer. They rushed upon him. They made the Lord’s Word seem only a distant whisper. They called God’s promise and person into question. “You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails” (Jer 15:18). In the heat of battle does God give out on him? His aching bones and weary soul cry out, “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?” (Jer 15:18). His inner pain blotted out hope, all the love he had known from the Lord, and every promise by which he had lived. Jeremiah hurts deeply. He describes this hurt as an incurable wound. The Hebrew text actually personifies it as a wound “refusing to be healed.”

Jeremiah turns to the Lord, this time, not for hope and strength, but in disappointed accusation. The insinuation is that the Lord is responsible. “You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me… So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long… I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side! Denounce him! Let’s denounce him!’ All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him’” (Jer 20:7-10).

Do you feel like everyone is waiting for you to screw up, say a wrong thing, or give up on your faith? Do you feel the terror on every side closing in on you? Are you hurting? And even when you go to the Lord for strength and comfort, is his Word like a “deceptive brook”? Like a “spring that fails”?

I’ll admit, sometimes that’s how I feel when I face the disheartening times when someone walks away from the church for something other than matters of faith. Or someone is upset by a biblical teaching we hold to. Or someone just isn’t interested in hearing the Word of God from our church because some other church has better music, more programs, or whatever else should supplement, not take precedence over God’s Word. And then I go to Scripture looking for comfort and hope but it seems to be all lies! These promises of God are not coming true. Where is the one who rejoices with me and says, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”?! Where are your good promises Lord? Why do I only find promises of hardship and cross bearing, of few entering in and losing my life for your sake? Why do I have to be a living sacrifice? Why is it so hard to win? Why does it always feel like I’m losing the battle of life?

This is a very dangerous road to be walking down. By complaining against God and calling him unfaithful, we are compromising his unchanging and eternal message – calling it faulty and unreliable. And by compromising the message, we are only plunging ourselves deeper and deeper into the pits of despair. Only convincing ourselves more and more of our own unworthiness, and foolishly believing that God is not protecting his Church with his almighty arms. In fact, we are compromising the very certainty of our hope of salvation – both for ourselves and for others. Afterall, if we are always complaining that God is unfair and unfaithful in life, then why should anyone believe us when we tell them about the hope we have, or about the resurrection of Jesus and certainty of salvation? We ourselves become false prophets when we cast doubt upon God’s Word. By doubting his promises, we make God out to be a liar.

God’s reaction to Jeremiah, and to us, is calm and to the point. He doesn’t remove the cross of persecution. Rather, he commands his prophet to repent and turn to God for mercy. In the midst of such unbelief and despair, such smallness and narrowness of vision, God slapped the prophet to his senses with the word, “Repent.” Turn to me, listen to my voice. Grab hold of my promises and forget about your ineptitude. Forget about who or what is fighting against you and look to the one who fights for you.

Jeremiah had lost his sense. He had become like those to whom he was preaching; he had begun to turn to them; he had begun to yield the truth of God. The Lord called him back – not by changing his own ways, but by strengthening Jeremiah to change his ways and trust in his true source of strength and protection for his daily battles.

As the French were retreating, reserves depleted, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated before the House of Commons: “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy.”

It is our policy too, to wage war against the forces of evil in this dark world. To wage war with all the strength that God can give us against the monstrous tyranny of sin. It never ceases to amaze me how closely our good fight of faith parallels actual war with these quotes. Only, we are not fighting a battle of flesh and blood, but a battle for souls. The Lord maintains that the ministry of Jeremiah will be a fight, but because of the Lord’s grace and mercy, Jeremiah would be “tanky” in this fight. He will come out the victor. The promise is based on the Lord’s presence: “I am with you.” “I will make you a wall to this people, a fortified wall of bronze” – the strongest material at the time – “they will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you” declares the Lord (Jer 15:20).

He’s fighting on your side. Though we fight our daily battles – winning some, losing some. He’s fighting the war. And, in fact, he’s already won the war. He fought for your souls with his own flesh and blood. He fought against sin. He fought against Satan. Even when his own turned against him, “Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22), he still prevailed, advancing all the way to the cross, where he sealed the victory over sin, Satan, even death itself. If you need proof that even in the moments of seeming defeat you will prevail through Christ, you need only look to him. Even as Jesus dies on the cross, seemingly defeated, yet he was in complete control – rescuing and saving as promised. Satan did not take his life from him. He laid it down willingly, and only when he himself deemed, “It was finished”.

So even though the ungodly will continually fight against you, God’s people – that shouldn’t surprise us. You have God’s promise that he will not only be fighting by your side, but he’s already won the war! There’s nothing for you to worry about. In every adversity, persecution, or trouble, turn to the Lord. He will rescue and save. He will make you a fortified wall of bronze – of titanium – and you will prevail! Though troubles assail you, you will not be shaken because God is with his Church. He makes the Church “tanky” with his faithful promises that cannot be breeched.

When you are struggling, when you are hurting. When you feel all alone, beat down, and defeated by the world around you. When you feel like giving up because what’s the point of even fighting against it any more… Do not turn to them. Sure, you may save your life in this world, but ultimately you will have lost it. Turn only to the Lord. It is in him you find the endurance needed to face this world. In him you find the certainty of salvation. Him who will bring you safely through this life and give you the crown of victory already won.

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God’s Rally Cry: “The Church will not fall!” (September 6, 2020)

September 12, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church will not fall!”

Matthew 16:13-20

View our livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMqMmOTG1kg

 

Taking his opponents by surprise and creating uncertainty in their minds were key elements in Rommel’s approach to offensive warfare. In the African theater of World War II, he took advantage of sandstorms and the dark of night to conceal the movement of his forces – thus gaining for himself the nickname “The Desert Fox”. The allied troops had recently been pushed back over the Egyptian border, and the commander of the Allied Eighth Army was recently shot down when his aircraft was intercepted. Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army and gave this speech to his demoralized troops before defeating Rommel’s Afrika Corps:

“Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burned, and at once. We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.”

It kind of reminds me of Martin Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

It’s really the reason for Jesus’ questioning in the Bible reading we had today. What are you standing upon? Is it the firm rock of truth, or will it crumble and fall?

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:14). And before you go through this list and simply say, “Wrong, wrong, and wrong,” Don’t overlook that this is a very illustrious group of people. The people didn’t think Jesus was a slouch or even a fraud. They had great respect for him! Jesus called people to repentance as John the Baptist did, and his disciples baptized. Like Elijah, Jesus was a man of prayer and a great miracle worker. He, too, took issue with the false religions of his day. And, the authorities turned against Jesus; he had no place to lay his head – a suffering prophet like Jeremiah. However, although all these were very complimentary ideas, they all fell short of the mark. None of these convictions of Jesus were spot on. None of them saw him as the promised redeemer he truly was. And therefore, all these convictions were built upon crumbling ground.

But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15). Jesus is clearly interested in what each person believes about him. He is clearly interested in what you personally confess about Jesus. Now, there was no opportunity for the disciples to hide behind the opinions of others. Jesus put them on the spot and asked his disciples very directly about their convictions. Peter answered on behalf of the disciples. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).

That title, “Christ” or “Messiah” – they are actually the same word, by the way. They both mean “The Anointed One”. Christ is the Greek word. Messiah is the Hebrew word. This title, “Christ” / “Messiah,” held before the Jewish hearer the promise of the great hero of redemption. Not only did Peter identify Jesus with a prophetic title that went beyond the prevailing views of his day, he showed that he now perceived it in a deeper way. Not only was Jesus the “Son of Man,” but Peter also identified him as “the Son of the living God!” God was living and active right before their very eyes in Jesus, the Christ.

So, what about you? Who do you say Jesus is? Because there is a right and a wrong answer. Even in our day, few people have anything bad to say about Jesus. But, sadly, they never want to say quite enough. Our own thinking and understanding, our own reasoning can only take us so far. It can lead us to speak well of Jesus. It can lead us to value his teachings as principles for good living. But to confess him as the promised Christ, the Son of the Living God, human reason cannot lead us here.

Experiences in life can teach us too. It can teach us that for everything there is a cause and effect, an investment and return. We can maybe apply that and reason that If I do good to you then you will do good to me. Life also teaches us that everything has a beginning and an end. I was born and one day I will die. Everything wears down and meets its end eventually, so the same must be true for me. Eventually I too will wear down and meet my end. And IF there is anything that follows, well… I hope my investment of good, my climbing the spiritual ladder, will be enough to make it through the gates.

Life experience and human reason can only take us so far though. Like the people’s opinion in Jesus’ day and the opinion of many in our day, it can hint at the truth, but it’s never going to be enough. Not every good opinion concerning Jesus is valid or of saving significance. Turn to Scripture and learn what the Father reveals. The Father reveals that I have not done enough. The Father reveals that I will meet my end and I have fallen short of the glory of God. And unless I have some Redeemer to cancel all that out in some way; if I’ve built my hopes upon what I can reason, what I learn through experience, then I’ve built my hopes upon a foundation of sand.

Later we will talk a little bit about the work of the Church – the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven – binding and loosing. Jesus is giving the Church the authority to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness in his name. Forgiveness sounds great and loving and kind! But I think the “binding key” the withholding forgiveness sometimes gets a bad rap. It too is loving. It too is meant for your good. Picture it this way. When I was young, I liked going to haunted houses. I remember one in particular where once you enter it is pitch black – you couldn’t see a thing. So you are feeling your way down a hallway with a couple twists and turns, bumping into the walls as you go. Then, suddenly, nothing. It feels like you are finally free from the restricting hallway, finally out into a big open room. But then the lights flip on and you realize that you are in a cage – a prison – and there’s a scary guy in a mask with a fake chainsaw ready to do his worst! That’s what the binding key does – it flips on the lights. Our sins already imprison us. At times we may even feel free as we live in sin, but the reality is we are not. The binding key flips on the lights and reveals the prison of sin we are already living in. It reveals the need for repentance and instills a longing to be freed from sin.

Besides revealing my own shortcomings, flaws, and misconceptions – hemming me into a prison of sin and condemnation – the Father also reveals the great hero of redemption. The hero who unlocks the bonds of sin and death. This Jesus, the Anointed One, paid the price for your sin so that you would not fall short. He unlocks the gates and shows you that there is life even after death for those who stand on the rock-solid confession that Jesus is the Christ, our Redeemer from sin. “What about you? Who do you say I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt 16:15-18). “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! HE gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you!” (1 Cor 15:55-58). The gates of Hades – that is, the gates of death – will not overcome the Church. The Church WILL NOT fall. And those in the Church will merely pass through death, as one passes through a door, and enter into eternal life!

This confession is the “boulder” upon which Christ builds his church. To get the linguistic sense of what Jesus is saying, I’ll paraphrase it this way: “I say to you, you are called ‘rock,’ and on this ‘boulder’ of a confession I will build my church and the powers of death and hell will not overcome it.” It is this confession that is the strength of the Church – the foundation upon which it cannot fall. Christ’s Church (the true Israel) will be built on Peter’s confession and built by him whom Peter confessed.

Although Peter was identified as “the rock,” the Gospels show that he was anything but rock-like. His emotions often overwhelmed him. His actions often belied his nickname. But upon this boulder of a confession, his faith could not be shaken. It was the blessing of the Father that would turn him into a pillar of the church. It is that same blessing of the Father working through Word and Sacrament that also turns you into a pillar of the Church. God’s Word gives you the firm foundation. God’s Holy Supper strengthens you to become boulders! Because it stands on the Rock and not on the pebbles of men who serve it, the Church will stand forever. Its message is changeless, the ramifications of its work are eternal.

What is that message? What is the work that the Church performs, and its people proclaim? “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). There is no higher freedom than to be a forgiven sinner. There is no harsher prison than to be bound under guilt and condemnation. And just to remind you, sin has already bound and imprisoned each one of us. The “binding key” is meant to show each person the bars of the prison they are already in so that they can repent of sin and long for the “loosing key” of the gospel. So that they can go to their Savior for the freedom of forgiveness he freely offers.

This is the privilege with eternal consequences that Christ bestows upon the Church. Don’t take this up lightly or use it frivolously. But realize the great power it can have in a person’s life when God works through the Word to reveal the prison of sin and unlock the gates of death and hell. It is the Church’s responsibility to reveal sin and forgive repentant hearts using the Word of God. And you can support your church in doing this by modeling repentance and forgiveness in your own home and among friends, by praying for the work our church does, by supporting the ministry of our church. We are currently working to expand the reach of our church’s work. Yes, that means spreading ourselves out and perhaps being stretched a bit thin at the moment. And although we do not know our future for certain – God doesn’t promise an easy life, but he certainly does amazing things – God has a promise for you: His Church will not fall. You will not be overcome by death, sin, or Satan, because you stand here on the truth of our Redeemer. This is the truth we stand upon, unmoved. This is the truth we proclaim: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

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God’s Rally Cry: “The Church is for all” (August 30, 2020)

September 1, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Rally Cry: “The Church is for all”

Matthew 15:21-28

Livestream link: https://youtu.be/RLJ7DNqRqPU

 

For the next five Sunday, we will be focusing on different attributes of the Church that are recorded in Scripture and promised by God. And when I say “Church” here, I’m talking about church with a capital “C”. In other words, not this physical congregation. Not the WELS as a church body. I’m talking about the “Invisible Church” – that is, those whom God knows are his. All true believers.

The way I’m grouping and wording the themes for these next 5 Sundays are actually meant to sound like a “rally cry”. Like one of those speeches a General would give before an important battle to boost morale and soar spirits! Because we could certainly use a moral boost these days. We could certainly use a reminder of God’s promises to his Church and why we exist as a “Communion of Saints”. In keeping with the theme of “God’s Rally Cry,” I’m hoping to start each one of these sermons with a portion of a speech given before a major historical event.

So, God’s Rally Cry for today is: The Church is for all! And I’m going to quote from President John F. Kennedy as he’s bracing the nation for the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962. “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

That same day, President Kennedy announced that the US would intercept all shipments to Cuba. The problem was a naval blockade was considered an act of war – this during a time when tensions between the US and the USSR were already heavy. President Kennedy said it wasn’t a blockade, but rather a “Quarantine” that didn’t block basic necessities. What followed was the most intense 6 days of the Cold War.

While it’s true that the “blockade” or “quarantine” was meant to be for the good of all people and promote peace, not all blockades have the same intention. In fact, you could say that the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus day set up a blockade of God’s love over the people of their day. They put God’s grace and favor behind a blockade of their own man-made rules and traditions and criticized those who did not follow them. Even going as far as to not even associate with certain people – people who needed God’s love. Just before the section of the text we have for today, the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for eating with unwashed hands – eating in a ceremonially unclean way. And it went further than that. They would prevent people from helping their livestock on the Sabbath. They would even prevent sons and daughters from helping their father and mother if their possessions were declared as being “devoted to God” and thus, must be given as an offering. And Jesus calls them out on this. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Mt 15:8-9). They were blockading God’s love, and thus, failed the love test.

After this encounter, Jesus withdrew from Galilee and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon – this is outside the promised land. Outside the nation of Israel. And a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” (Mt 15:22). Yet, surprisingly, Jesus did nothing! This mom is pleading on behalf of her daughter. She perhaps lies on the bed next to her daughter as she’s sleeping, gently stroking her hair, because it’s the only moment of peace she has with her daughter. The demon perhaps makes this girl’s eyes roll back in her head or cackle like a jackal. It perhaps pushes her down like a bully on the playground. What would you do if your daughter had a creature from another realm living in her?! Yet, Jesus does nothing!

So the disciples came to Jesus and urged him to send her away. Maybe they were embarrassed by her cries for help. Maybe they wanted to preserve Jesus’ privacy since he meant this trip as a sort of retreat from all the things that had been going on back in Israel – his cousin, John the Baptist was beheaded, the religious gnats kept showing up to berate Jesus for not obeying the laws. So they urged Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us” (Mt 15:23).

Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 15:24). Really, Jesus? Have you failed the love test? What about Rahab back in Jericho, who is in the line of the Promised Savior?! What about the Centurion whose servant you healed? To the five thousand people who followed you around the sea of Galilee you showed compassion. You walked out to the disciples on the water and calmed their fears in a very personal way. You’ve rebuked the Pharisees and teachers of the law for blockading love. You’ve gone to great lengths to show that people matter most, even putting your words into action by taking this hundred mile journey into Tyre and Sidon and you are really going to tell me that you were only sent to the lost sheep of Israel?

But who was Jesus looking at when he said this? What was his inflection? It was said in response to the disciples. Was he looking at them? Was there perhaps some cutting sarcasm in his voice? Did the disciples just fail the love test? They just wanted to be done with her – whether that meant sending her away empty handed or granting her request for the wrong reason. We know Jesus was not only sent for Israel but for all people. Perhaps he was only testing his disciples, and they just failed.

Do we fail the love test? There was apparently a conversation with President Abraham Lincoln during the civil war in which he was asked, “How is the war today?” He responded, “We lost 300 men. They lost 3,200.” “Splendid!” The person remarked. To which Lincoln responded, “3,500 lives were lost today, how is that splendid?”

Are we so concerned with what kind of people are in our church – what kind of people we associate with – that we are so cold and unloving to souls that are perishing? Do we, like the Pharisees, blockade God’s love? Do we fail to love people who are precious in God’s eyes? Do we insult the sacrifice of Christ and his blood shed for all people because we find certain people undesirable or inconvenient to deal with? Are we the judge of who deserves God’s love and forgiveness? Or is it for all?

It’s true, the woman was not among the chosen nation of Israel. She was not among the “children” in that sense. She understood Jesus’ words, but that did not prevent her from getting the “crumbs” – the blessings that Jesus could give her without depriving the “children” of anything.

Scripture is filled with some of the “least likely people.” Rahab, a prostitute from a heathen nation helps the Israelites take the land God promised. Rugged shepherds were the heralds of the King’s birth. Women were the first to witness the empty tomb in a society where men should have been the first credible witnesses. A Pharisee who was on a mission to stop Christianity was stopped dead in his tracks and took on a new mission to spread the good news of Christ risen from the dead! This Canaanite woman, from an area where most were gross unbelievers and idolaters, yet she cried out, “Lord, Son of David” (Mt 15:22). That’s a title for Jesus that carries some great weight. It means that whatever she understood of Israel’s hopes, whatever she knew of the promised Savior, one thing is clear: she believed that Jesus was the one. The true Messiah. She believed that Jesus could and would help her. She sensed the “Yes” behind Jesus’ “No” and clings to him to ring the “yes” out of his “no”! She replied “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Mt 15:27). The Lord could answer her prayer without taking any blessing from the Jews.

She reminds us of Jacob who wrestled with God and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” God loves it when his children “change his mind”. And I have that in quotes because God knows all along what he will do. He also knows just exactly how to stretch our faith and make it grow – not for him – but so that we can be benefitted and see the greatness of our God and the strength of our faith when it is placed in him!

She impresses Jesus with her faith! Jesus says she has a “mega” faith. She believed in him as the Lord, the promised Son of David. She trusted in his mercy and love for all people. She admitted her unworthiness. She accepted his word. She believed that he would not refuse her despite who she was! Because the Church is for all. Isn’t that something we can strive for! To impress Jesus with our faith. To reach out in love to all people because the church is for all people. To reach out with God’s Word trusting that he can work miraculous faith and renewal even in those we might consider the “least likely” kind of people.

You probably noticed the surprising way that Jesus deals with the woman here – a methodology that you and I probably wouldn’t use. Ignoring her, then seemingly insulting her. But remember that this is Jesus. Jesus’ primary concern is that people believe that he is the Savior and that they remain in the saving faith. He can read the heart, and he knows exactly what’s best for each person. He deals with individuals – that’s why sometimes we get a strange approach that we would never use, but it reveals stunning results. Don’t blockade God’s love by judging a person when you can’t see their heart. God knows them personally, died for them, and works through his word to change even the most unlikely of candidates. Reach out in love. For once you too were not a people. But God reached out to you in love and made you his own – gave you a place to belong – through faith in this Son of David.

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God walks on what you fear (August 23, 2020)

August 25, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

God walks on what you fear

Matthew 14:22-33

View our livestream: https://youtu.be/fLE2RJgtuA8

 

Fear is often caused by the lack of control over self and the world. You may fear losing your job because you have no clue what you would do, how you would provide for yourself. That fear may have been brought closer to reality in recent months as companies have had to downsize. You may fear the first day at a new school because you don’t know exactly what to expect. Are you going to know where your classes are? Are you going to be overwhelmed with the course load? Are you going to be able to make some new friends? There’s a lot in our lives that we don’t really have control over. When these very real things hit close to home, what do you do? How do you make it through a fearful and trying time?

For the disciples, gaining control was the only thing on their mind. They had just witnessed Jesus feed over 5,000 people with nothing more than a boy’s lunch. Jesus sent them on ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee by boat while he dismissed the crowd and retreated for a quiet moment of prayer. As is common on the Sea of Galilee, a squall arose and the wind and waves fought against the disciples’ progress across the sea. They rowed and rowed and rowed. The struggled to gain control and keep control. Struggled to make progress as arms and backs began to go numb. If they couldn’t row, they couldn’t keep control. If they couldn’t keep control, they were at risk of capsizing.

By now, it was nearing dawn. And as the disciples frantically rowed with little progress, Jesus walked across the lake. He didn’t simply appear, as he could have. He did not fly or float through the air. He walked across the surface of the water as if it were solid ground. The very thing the disciples had been struggling and fighting against all night, the very water that posed such a great threat to their lives, Jesus walked on it like it was dry ground. You could say, he treads their fears underfoot. Jesus walked on what they feared.

Though the laws of nature say this shouldn’t happen – gravity should pull down on Jesus and the water molecules should disperse – but just who is it that created the water? Who is it that ordered gravity to do what it does? What a Savior we have who walks on the waters of our greatest fears! See the faith of the disciples grow! See Peter show that faith in his own miraculous walk. Faith was swelling like the waves of the sea!

But… doubt is often the unfortunate companion of faith. Peter, the man of action, is ready at once! He calls out, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water” (Mt 14:28). “Come” (Mt 14:29), Jesus said, calmly displaying that what he can do, could also be done by those who trust in him. Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus! As long as he looked to the Lord and clung to his word, he stood on solid ground. But when he saw the gusting wind, his faith let go of Jesus, and in the same moment he began to sink. It was the power of Jesus’ word that had kept him up, not the laws of nature. And once he doubted that word of promise from Jesus, he sunk. Though Jesus was standing on the water, Peter feared it.

Here we have a striking picture of spiritual walk of any believer. The surface may be a raging storm and turbulent sea. But as long as you plant your feet on the promises of God and fix eyes of faith upon him alone, all is well. Though the waters roar and foam, you have a firm foundation. You have a strength which cannot be overcome because it is God’s strength. But as soon as you lose your hold on the promises and allows your eyes to wander away from Jesus, toward the dangers and afflictions of this life – fearing the loss of control – then you and I will be overwhelmed by our own weakness. Then we have nothing but our own strength – and this is no strength at all. Doubt is the unfortunate companion to faith. Wherever faith clings to the promises of God, doubt is always right there lingering in the back of our minds, constantly asking the serpent’s question, “Did God really say?”

What is it that pulls your eyes of faith away from Jesus? What are the wind and waves in your life that make you doubt him from time to time? Is it a past life you are so disgusted of that you simply can’t believe that you are worthy in God’s eyes? Simply can’t believe those words of forgiveness and love spoken by Jesus and guaranteed at the cross? Is it the finite things you have in life? I only have so much of this, or so much of this, and the laws of economy or laws of nature say that I am losing ground not gaining it – struggling frantically against the storm of life, trying to keep my neck above water. Is it the relationships that are stretched thin, or the tearing loss of someone you love that perhaps causes you to doubt if God really is in control? If God really does work all things for good?

To Peter, Jesus asked, “Why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31). He gave no answer. What could he say? With Jesus there is never any reason to doubt? Any answer he could have given would just be an excuse – an attempt to cover up his doubt just as Adam and Eve tried to cover up theirs by hiding, blaming, and sewing fig leaves. James calls us out as being “double-minded” “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (Jas 1:6-8) when we doubt God. With Jesus there is never any need to doubt. He walks on what we fear – tramples it underfoot. How sad that we often end up neck deep in our doubts.

Thankfully, Jesus reaches out in love, even when we are unsure of him or doubting. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught [Peter]” (Mt 14:31). He didn’t make Peter reach out. He didn’t reprimand him first. Didn’t wait until Peter trusted fully once again. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter” (Mt 14:31). I find it interesting too, that Jesus physically reached out – that Jesus made sure he was close enough during Peter’s time of need that he could reach out and hold Peter. He could have levitated Peter out of the water and back into the boat, but he didn’t. He could have immediately calmed the wind and the waves when he first walked out to the disciples. But he didn’t. He gave them his word. He said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Mt 14:27). He gave them a promise to hold onto, just as he gave Peter a promise before he walked on the water, “Come” (Mt 14:29).

It’s an important lesson we need to learn. Jesus often does NOT take away the adversity in life that causes such doubt. Rather, he reminds us of who he is: the one who walks on water. The one who walks on what we fear. And as he treads the waves of adversity under his feet, he swells our trust in HIM to carry us through that adversity. When we hear his voice, the waves of doubt recede and faith finds its place again, making us once again, “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1).

The true answer to doubt is not found in a great miracle that removes adversity, but in the still small voice of our Savior God whispering in his Word. I think another place that is vividly displayed is in the first reading from today (1 Kings 19:9-18). Elijah’s great victory of faith over the prophets of Baal was followed closely by great adversity. Elijah had faith in God’s power, but he doubted when God’s plans and purpose did not match his own – there was no mass spiritual renewal after the display of God’s power. Elijah retreated to a cave, brought his case against the people of Israel and grumbled against God. And God answered his prophet, not with great acts of power – not with ripping winds, rumbling earthquakes, or scorching fires – but in a gentle whisper. Quiet words of promise. God displayed all of his power so that his display of gentle grace might be all the more astounding!

Even when in the midst of adversity, even when everything seems out of control and there is plenty you could be fearing, trust in the one who walks on what you fear. Trust that Jesus is still in control of everything you face in life. We’ve seen that’s the case already in this Bible reading, but there’s one small yet important detail that blows this up even bigger. It’s right at the beginning and easy to miss. “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd” (Mt 14:22). Jesus sounds kind of pushy. He made the disciples get into the boat. What’s going on here? John gives us the context in his account of the same event: “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed (feeding the 5,000), they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (Jn 6:14-15). Jesus knew that this unholy political pressure would be a real temptation to his disciples. He made them get into the boat and cast off to send them away from an even greater temptation. The Lord knew that there was more danger to the disciples in the favor of the crowd than in the fury of the storm. The temptation to make Jesus an earthly king, and them his honored nobility.

How many more devastating temptations has Jesus sent us away from? How many times has Jesus kept us from and protected us from very real dangers and threats? Jesus does not give us more than we can bear. And when we are tempted – when we feel that we are facing more than we can bear – he always gives us a way out. That way out is often up. Up to God in prayer. Peter’s prayer is so short and to the point. A reminder that even short prayers are long enough. His simple, three-word prayer was sufficient for his purpose. So, when God does allow adversity to strike, Lord, teach us to pray, “Lord, save me!”

The true answer to doubt is focusing once again on the Savior. When you do, you can also watch your faith swell as the disciples’ did when their doubts vanished and they gave the greatest evidence of faith: They worshiped that man from Nazareth for what he truly was, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt 14:33).

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Did God cause COVID? (August 16, 2020)

August 20, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Did God cause COVID?

Genesis 41:41-49

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/sqV3YYvj3ws

 

I was recently asked, “Did God cause COVID?” A valid question. In fact, I think it’s a question that we often ask throughout life. Is this from God? Is he causing this hardship? But far more important than answering the questions, “Did God cause it” is considering, “What can God work through it?”

There are a number of people in the Bible whose stories span a number of chapters – sometimes even a number of books. One of these people is Joseph. Not, Mary and Joseph – parents of Jesus – from the New Testament. But the Joseph of the Old Testament – one of the 12 sons of Jacob (later known as Israel). Many of you are familiar with some of the accounts from Joseph’s life. He had the coat of many colors. He had the dreams of the sheaves bowing down to his; and the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. He even interpreted dreams for Pharaoh later in his life. But rather than just taking little snippets from their lives here and there, sometimes reading their whole story really gives you a whole new perspective. A big picture perspective. A perspective that I think we fail to see in our own lives at times.

If Joseph were counting the triumphs and failures of his life – the highs and lows – I think the lows would really dominate his list. There were some highs, yes. Often, they came after long years of faithful work. But then they would immediately be overshadowed by the crushing lows that would take everything away from him and shatter his life to pieces.

He didn’t know his life would be violently thrown off course that one sunny afternoon he went to check on his brothers in the field. But their loathing of him had been slowly growing for a number of years. And today they would finally act on it. They originally plotted to kill him. A muddy cistern seemed like a better option at the moment. But when a trade caravan was seen in the distance the jealous brothers decided to act on their hatred and satisfy their greed at the same time. Joseph was brought up from the pits only to be sold as a slave.

As a slave in Potiphar’s house, however, Joseph slowly worked his way up the ladder until he became Potiphar’s attendant – in charge of his whole household! With faithful service and a lot of hard work, things were finally looking up for Joseph! That is… until his master’s lustful wife falsely accused Joseph of making a pass at her and he was thrown, once again, into the pits – this time, the place where the king’s prisoners were kept.

So, Joseph went at it again. He was a respectful prisoner and gained favor in the eyes of the prison warden. Again, Joseph was put in a position of authority – in charge of all of those in prison. It certainly wasn’t Potiphar’s house of nobility, but it was something. Things continued to look up when Joseph met Pharaoh’s own Cupbearer and Baker. (And I know, these might sound like fairly measly positions, but they were in charge of making sure Pharaoh’s food wasn’t poisoned – a pretty important position). They somehow landed themselves in prison, but Joseph interpreted their dreams and asked the Cupbearer to make mention of him when he was released from prison in three days. Those days turned into weeks, and months, and years. The Cupbearer forgot all about Joseph who remained there in that prison.

All his problems were quite clear. It seemed any time he worked hard for something, it would slip through his fingers. Was God the cause of all Joseph’s trials?

It’s easy to see our troubles. Easy to count our burdens. I mean, what is it that often fills our conversations? It’s easy to complain about this going wrong. Or grumble about when this is ever going to get better. How often are our prayers filled with all the things that God needs to change in our lives or all the things he needs to do for us rather than overflowing with thanksgiving for all that he has done for us? It’s easy to count our problems. It’s easy to wonder, “Did God cause this?”

We see all the problems and none of the possibilities. I’m not saying your estimation of your circumstance is wrong. You may be in the pits. Life may have been particularly hard. You may meet roadblock after roadblock. And no doubt it’s hard. No doubt it knocks you off your feet. But it’s not cause for despair. It’s not cause to doubt God. It’s not cause to turn away in rebellion. Rather, it’s a time to cling to him and trust that even in the worst of situations, he could be working something beautiful. Strive to peer through the fog of pain and hardship – to see what God might be accomplishing.

It’s true, there are evils in life. It’s true too that Satan and sinful people – us included – actually cause many of the evils in life. Who was it, after all, that planted seeds of doubt and mistrust for God all the way back in the garden of Eden? I look at more recent events too. When COVID first hit and businesses everywhere were closed – when churches too were closing their doors. How could God allow this? How will his Word be heard if people can’t even go to church. But then, what I saw, was churches immediately going to a new medium. Churches everywhere were livestreaming their services and reaching a larger audience. And in the home too, there were positive changes. Churches were open in Christian homes across the globe. Fathers and mothers took an active role in sitting down with their children to worship online or read the Bible. Parents could explain things in greater detail to their children without interrupting other worshipers. And Christians gained a healthy longing and appreciation for gathering with fellow Christians when things open again.

Or, you could turn to the greatest evil this world has ever known: When wicked men spat in God’s face, tore open his flesh with the scourge, mocked and crucified God. God was killed by wicked men. “Did God cause this?” “Was this God’s plan?” I’m sure the disciples would have loved a quiet evening with their Lord on the Passover. Jesus even prayed if there was another way. But if that were the case, if God did not use the evil plotted by wicked men for his good purpose, then the disciples would forever remain a stone’s throw from God – never measuring up, and never free from their sins. Then you and I too would be forever in darkness and despair – destined only for the pit of hell.

“Did God cause this?” A better question is, “What was God doing through this?” And when you shift your focus on what you are tracking – what you are counting – then you see that the world’s greatest atrocity is also the world’s greatest joy! It was by following that road all the way to the pain and suffering of the cross, by facing the wrath of God against every one of my sins and your sins, that you and I are saved! He drank deeply from the cup of suffering so that your cup would overflow with grace beyond measure!

Sure, we could try to count the injustices against our Lord. Or we could try to count our own wrongdoing, weigh our own guilt and wonder if God’s grace is enough. But asking that question, wondering if we are forgiven, we are doubting if God is enough. Because it is God who forgives. It is God who earned your salvation. It is God who suffered hell in your place, really died, and then rose victorious! Brothers and sister, let me tell you there is enough! God is more than enough to cover a multitude of wrongs. In fact, once you shift your focus and begin counting God’s graces, it isn’t even worth counting anymore. “How much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Rm 5:15).

There were plenty of problems that Joseph could have been counting – front and center was the immense weight of bringing Egypt safely through this great calamity – but God would see him through it. In fact, throughout Joseph’s life the same phrase keeps popping up. “The Lord was with him” (Gen 39:2, 39:21). The Lord was with him as a slave in Potiphar’s house. The Lord was with him as a prisoner in the king’s prison. The Lord was with him through the 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine. In fact, the Lord provided in such great measure that “Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure” (Gen 41:49).

God brought Joseph through all the trials and struggles he faced in life so that he could be exactly where God needed him at exactly the right time. Not only did God have Joseph in place to feed an entire nation during a severe, seven-year famine, but God had Joseph in that place at that time to feed the world. “When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was so severe everywhere” (Gen 41:56-57). But it’s even more than that. God had Joseph in exactly that place, to bring Jacob and his 12 sons down to Egypt. To preserve this line, the line of the Savior. God brought the infant nation of Israel down to Egypt, where they would grow and multiply, where God would one day bring out the Israelites – a great nation – from Egypt and into the Promised Land.

The Lord is with you too! And it’s only when you realize this, understand what it means, and take it to heart that you will start counting the right things – that is…. If you even can count them. Not the hardship, the trials and adversities that so often worry and distract us, but the overflowing blessings from God! Trust that God will provide – even when the plan makes no sense. So great was God’s blessing in Egypt that they stopped counting the grain!

At the end of each day, as you are lying in bed, I want you to reflect on the day and count some of the blessings God has given you. As you say your prayers and bring requests, balance out those requests with thanksgiving. It may be hard at first, to find and identify these blessings in life, because we are so used to counting the wrong things. But I’m pretty confident that once you start identifying and counting your blessings, pretty soon they will be beyond measure. And it will become natural for you to see not only where you need God’s help, but also where the Lord was with you providing gifts beyond measure. His abundance will fill your heart, your mind, and even overflow from your mouth when you count the blessings.

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Fantastic Treasure and Where to Find It (August 9, 2020)

August 10, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Fantastic Treasure and Where to Find It

Matthew 13:44-52

Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/TOSyy-PVsgc

 

What’s the most valuable thing in the world? I suppose there could be a lot of different answers to that question. Less than two weeks ago, Apple topped Saudi Aramco as the world’s most valuable company at $1.817 trillion. If we’re talking diamonds, the most valuable diamond in the world is – I thought it was the Hope Diamond, but that one’s in third at around $250 million – the world’s most valuable diamond is the Koh-I-Noor. The Koh-I-Noor is the largest diamond among the crown jewels valued at over $2 billion and can be seen at the Tower of London.

But what if we go a different route. I’m sure none would argue that a good family is worth more than these. There isn’t a thing a mother wouldn’t do for the safety and wellbeing of her children. What about your own life? What if you could find the fountain of youth and live forever?! Well… with how 2020 has been, let’s put it this way: What if you could find the fountain of youth and live forever in with no sadness, no pain, only joy and happiness and perfection. What would you do for that? What would you do to obtain that – to take a sip from that fountain?

That’s what Jesus was illustrating in the first two parables of this section. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Mt 13:44-46). You see two different kinds of people depicted in the parable. The one, wasn’t necessarily looking for it. He could have been a hired worker digging in a farmer’s field when his shovel clunked against a wooden box with hidden treasure. He immediately knew that this was valuable and did everything he could to obtain that treasure right then and there – selling all his possessions and buying that field. Although he valued what he previously had, he knew he would be far richer if he could just obtain this treasure.

The other is a man who was actually searching for the treasure. In fact, he was in the business. He was a pearl merchant. He knew what he wanted. He knew what to look for. And when he found it, again, he did anything it took to obtain that treasure – possibly even selling all his other pearls just for that one. Before finding these new treasures, both people no doubt valued what they previously owned. But once they saw this new treasure, see how little they valued all else.

Did you know there is a real “fountain of youth”? There is something you can drink from and live forever in perfect bliss. It’s the Lord’s supper! Jesus himself says, “Take and eat this is my body, take and drink this is my blood shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.” The forgiveness of sins is eternal life and salvation! It’s what we say after the Lord’s Supper, “This body and blood strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith until… life everlasting.”

I think we lose that excitement and awe from time to time. I think we lose that perspective on what the good news of salvation is actually worth. Nothing you own or possess or do is more important, more valuable than the treasure of the Gospel. In fact, Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mt 16:26). The answer is nothing! Even if you owned the whole world – Google, Apple, SpaceX, Ford Motor Company, entire countries, all of it – it still would not be more valuable than the Gospel – the salvation of your soul.

It’s like oxygen tanks for the diver. Or an EMU suit – astronaut suit – for the astronaut. You NEED it. To help us understand just how much we need it – just how valuable it is, Jesus goes on.

Why you need it is explained in Jesus’ next parable. “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:47-50).

There WILL be a “sorting” day. All people will be caught up in the dragnet of Judgement Day. And do you know what the requirements are to be considered a good fish? To be spared from the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 19:17-19). To clarify a little bit more on some of these, God’s Word says elsewhere, “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 Jn 3:15). And, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Simply put, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2).

Brothers and sisters, can any of us honestly say that we have been as holy as God? That we have never stolen, never hated, never lusted, always loved perfectly? Then Jesus’ words are quite clear. “The angels will come an separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:49-50).

There is… one other thing. There’s something the fishermen of Judgment Day are looking for. It’s the pearl. It’s the pearl of faith – that gift from God that connects you to the perfect, holy, righteous life of Jesus. It’s faith that acknowledges, “I have nothing good in me by which I am to be saved, but I cling to Jesus and the forgiveness he won for me as my pearl of righteousness. You could be the ugliest, mangiest, bottom feeder of a fish – certainly destined to be cast aside – but having that gift of God – the pearl of salvation – God sees Jesus when he looks at you. God takes you into his arms and spares you from the judgment.

You have found true wealth in Christ. More accurately, Christ has led you to this true wealth. Now, you have a storeroom full of treasures old and new. “’Have you understood all these things?’ Jesus asked” (Mt 13:51). Earlier that day, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people long to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Mt 13:17). “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Mt 13:16). “These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Cor 2:10). He gives the understanding.

Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt 13:52). Jesus was training his disciples not only by explaining the message of the Old Testament to them, but he also revealed new truths – he revealed to them the fulfillment of the prophecies found in him. He convinced them that the work of salvation is finished, completed, in his own death and resurrection. He spent three years with them stocking their storeroom with treasures so that they would be equipped to meet every situation – able to dispense God’s treasures to others.

You have this storeroom too. Imagine a large wine cellar in your home, fully stocked! And with the special connection you have with the owner of a vineyard, new bottles keep coming in. There’s rare, vintage wines. There’s exquisite new wines. There’s wines for every occasion. Only, we’re not talking about wine. We are talking about the truths of God’s Word! And yes, because of your special connection to God, he is stocking your storeroom. Every time you visit him in the word he is stocking your storeroom for every occasion – so that you also, when the occasion arises, can bring out of your storeroom new treasures as well as old. It might be a word of comfort after a friend has lost a loved one. “Let me tell you about where I go when I am weary and burdened.” It might be a word of encouragement for new students going off to school during uncertain times, “Take heart, God has overcome the world!” It might be the thanks and praise that rolls off your lips, “God is so good! Let me tell you about how he saved our home from disaster.”

As God stocks your storeroom with his treasures, he will also provide occasions in life to share these treasures new and old with others. Treasures so valuable that it’s worth dropping everything in life just to get it – dropping everything in life just to share it.

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Didn’t you sow good seed? (August 2, 2020)

August 2, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

Didn’t you sow good seed?

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

watch livestream: https://youtu.be/OR_gN1e3yJ8

 

He got old. That young man who leaned on Jesus’ chest the night before the cross. The one who bested Peter in the early morning dash to the tomb – the first one to see the empty grave clothes and believe their silent testimony. He got old and finally slowed down. That John got old is not a remarkable fact all by itself. But consider that he was the only one of the 12 disciples to accomplish it. He endured, with a mix of crushing sadness and swelling joy to see the brutal martyrdom of most from that intimate circle of friends, and to see believers endure nonetheless.

How can that be? How can there be a good God when the world is such a bad place? Reflect on your own life – the mix of joy and sadness you’ve been through, the moments when you knew for certain that God did not exist or that his intentions were not entirely good. The problem: A God of absolute power as well as absolute goodness seems incompatible with the world we live in – a world filled with pain and death. “Lord, didn’t you so good seed? Where then did the weeds come from?” (Mt 13:27). The weeds, as later described by Jesus, being, “everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (Mt 13:41).

First, let’s take a look at the sowing of this field.

God certainly intended to have a weed-free field – to have a world filled with people who are born in his image, having the same will of God, and living in a creation that would be a blessing in every way. And that’s certainly what he sowed. When he established the world by his creating word in the beginning, “everything was very good” (Gen 1:31). Everything worked as it should. Everything was harmonious. Even mankind was created in God’s own image – having a mindset, a will, that aligned perfectly with God’s good and gracious will. Can you even imagine that?! But, we didn’t get to see that. Shortly after creation, the devil sowed weeds – sowed the seeds of evil right into the world and into the human heart.

Jesus says in his parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away” (Mt 13:24-25). To be clear on terms, the “Kingdom of heaven” is not a place – it’s not talking about that place called heaven where believers go after they die. Jesus is talking about something right now. In fact, in one place Jesus even said, the kingdom of heaven is among you (Lk 17:21). The kingdom of heaven is God’s gracious rule in human hearts and lives. Through the gospel promises of God’s word and sacraments, Jesus gives us the sure hope of heaven. That’s the kingdom of heaven!

In the world there are both Christ’s kingdom, and the devil’s kingdom of sin and darkness. God has all authority and sows only good seed in the world. But the devil sows bad seed – weeds among the wheat. So when asking, “Lord, didn’t you so good seed? Where then did the weeds come from?” (Mt 13:27). You know their source. The seeds of evil didn’t come from God. They came from the devil. Ever since the beginning there have been wheat – children of God – and weeds – children of the devil. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one live side by side in this world and may look very much alike. Yet they are entirely different.

So you know who’s sowing. Now let’s take a look at what’s growing.

The question is often asked, “Didn’t you so good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from” (Mt 13:27). Or, why is there evil if God is good? How can a good God allow such evil? Like the servants in the parable, who are the sons of the kingdom – the believers – we too are often astonished at the spread of wickedness. And what’s more perplexing is that even where the gospel has been clearly proclaimed for many years, wickedness still abounds.

Seeing this, our first reaction is to uproot the weeds – get rid of them all. And you can see this happen throughout history. How many times have believers tried to separate the wheat and weeds in the kingdom with rules or monasteries, with inquisitions or Pharisaical laws? All these were measures meant to uproot weeds or at least prevent them from corrupting good wheat. But what did it actually do? Any time it has been tried, we only succeed in ruining wheat along with the weeds. We uproot the faith of the weak who fall into sin. We trample the faith of the strong by feeding their pride. We cause more harm than good.

The servants in the parable had the same plan for action, “Do you want us to go and pull [the weeds] up?” (Mt 13:28). But they didn’t immediately go out and begin their work. First, they asked the master what he would have them do. Our Lord wants servants who are zealous to do his work, yes. But who first find out from Scripture exactly what their Lord wants them to do.

Our Lord’s answer is a resounding, “No!” (Mt 13:29). He said, “Let them grow” (Mt 13:30). But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a plan. The Lord most certainly has a plan to separate the wheat and weeds. Before the devil even carries out his wicked plans, the Lord already knows his plan – how he will use the evil for our good (Rm 8:28).

Take, for example, the true story of a man who was wrongly accused and condemned to death. Despite evidence to the contrary, a group of single-minded, evil men made up the jury that called for the death sentence. This man was killed for crimes he did not commit. Beaten and brutally killed – hung upon a cross to die. And yet, because of his death, you are forgiven of all your crimes. I’m talking, of course, about Jesus. Yes, Satan planned his evil and was allowed to carry it out. He persuaded one of Jesus’ own disciples to carry out his evil work. He incited a mob to cry out their injustices. But God meant it for good! God used the devil’s scheming at the death of Christ to be your greatest good!

How many other examples are there throughout Scripture? Examples of God using evil for his good plans. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery out of jealousy and greed. But God used this to save many thousands from a devastating famine. The apostle Paul being raised a Pharisee among Pharisees – relying on his own works, not God’s grace – and yet that knowledge and background gave him a thorough knowledge of Scriptures and customs to bring others to faith and combat Judaism.

What about in your own life? How many of you would have been uprooted if God simply destroyed the weeds as soon as their fruit appeared – destroyed you and me as soon as there was any evidence of evil thoughts and wicked actions? Oh Lord, who could stand? We all would have been pulled up and thrown into the fire.

Jesus calls the weeds, “everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (Mt 13:41). It makes sense that the weeds should be uprooted, but that was not God’s plan. Thankfully that is not God’s plan. Jesus’ answer is an unmistakable “No!” The reason the owner forbids his servants from pulling up the weeds is for the sake of the wheat. Out of love for the wheat, Jesus forbids us to cut short anyone’s time of grace. You and I were weeds once too. But allowed to remain and hear God’s Word, you are now wheat! Wheat among the weeds, growing together, yes. Suffering at times, yes. But also testifying to the truth, being wheat, and by God’s grace producing good fruit for the Savior.

As long as this present world stands, there will be both believers and unbelievers growing together in the world. But this situation will not continue forever. The harvest is coming. Now it seems that the wicked are prospering and flourishing. But the Lord points us ahead to the harvest, when believers and unbelievers will be separated. All temptation from our sinful flesh will be put to an end. All believers will be gathered into the Lord’s house forever. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43).

Didn’t you sow good seed? Yes, and by God’s grace you are one of them! Sown by God, growing strong and healthy in him, and one day he will mow you up into his arms. That’s certain!

Give to others this perspective you have – that even when life is not all roses and sunshine – when there are thorns and weeds, share how your good God can turn even the darkest moments in life to lifechanging moments for good! Because there is also a questioning that arises not from unbelief but from faith. It is precisely the fact that you know he is good, and you know he sowed good seed, and you know he is love that your soul cries out, “Then why, dear Lord?!” And the answer he gives reaches beyond the realm of words and ideas. He gives his very self for you. Gives himself so that weeds may become wheat.

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How to make a Christian? (July 26, 2020)

July 28, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

How to make a Christian

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Watch livestream: https://youtu.be/UaQSpkV4bvo

 

How do you make a Christian? What do you do? Maybe I’ll restate that just a little bit. How is a Christian made? Because that’s what we are all here for, right? It’s what Jesus told us to do in the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So how do you do it? Well, Jesus tells you how in that very same sentence, “Baptizing them… and teaching them everything” (Mt 28:19-20). I’m going to phrase it a little differently. I’m going to use Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 3(:6), because it better parallels the parable we are looking at today, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God makes it grow”.

How has that been going? Are you vigorously planting those Gospel Seeds every day and everywhere? Or have your sowing arms grown tired and weary? Have you mostly given up on sowing that seed?

I’ve seen a pattern that repeats throughout my life. After big life changes – graduation, ordination, moving – I’m diligently and excitedly sowing that seed. Or I attend a mission seminar – while I was in school we had these “Mission and Ministry” days once a year. Now it’s Pastor’s conferences, Mission Fest Sundays, or Women’s Rallies that get me all fired up and excited about sowing the Gospel Seeds! But what happens after a few weeks? You probably know. You’ve probably experienced the same thing. You sow those seeds in the days following that mission rally. You get to know your neighbors and speak freely about your faith just after moving in. And then you wait and watch expectantly for that seed to sprout. You look around in church on Sunday expecting to see that person you invited. Or you look forward to the questions your neighbor will come back with, wanting to know more about your faith. But as the days turn into weeks, and weeks soon turn into months with still no evidence of those seeds sprouting, you perhaps get discouraged. I know I do. Your excitement fades. Your zeal flickers. Your sowing arm gets tired and soon just hangs by your side. I know there are times that I wonder, “What’s the point? What’s the use? These seeds are never going to grow. Nothing I plant ever sprouts.” And so you leave those Gospel Seeds in your bag, and save them for… more fertile soil???

Let me ask you: What if God appeared to you tonight, as he did to Paul, and said, “Keep on speaking, do not be silent. I am with you. I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10)? What stands out to you in those words? First, God’s command to “Keep on speaking, do not be silent” jumped out. For Paul, this was spoken at a time when people weren’t just apathetic, they opposed Paul and became abusive! And God said, “Keep on speaking!” Why? What’s the point? God continues, “I have many people in this city.” In context, God was speaking specifically about Corinth. But what about Temple? Do the same words apply? Does God have many people in this city or are we it? Are the Christian churches here in Temple all that there is and there will never be a new person to come to faith? God’s statement remains true! “I have many people in this city.” And since you and I will never know how many still need to be reached, we must simply follow God’s command to keep on speaking! Do not be silent! God promises, “I am with you.”

In the parable of the sower, that we are focusing on today, I’ve always been a little disappointed by how little ink is spent on the seed that fell on good soil. It’s barely two verses, compared to the eight verses spent on the seeds that did not take root, or died shortly thereafter. And hardly anything more is said in the explanation of the parable than what was said in the first place. “It produced a crop… [it] refers to someone who hears the word and understands it…. [it] yields a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown” (Mt 13:8, 23). Come on, Jesus, couldn’t you be a little more inspiring?! A little more uplifting?! Spend a little more time on it and tell us how productive we are going to be as we spread Gospel Seeds and see them sprout, thrive, and flourish?!

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Whereas we tend to focus on the results – how many seeds sprout and grow and flourish – Jesus says, don’t worry about that. Scatter the seed of the Gospel to all with no regard for where it might land, or whether or not it will sprout. In fact, Jesus gives us an indication of just what we will find when we do scatter seed with how much ink he spends on each result. Most of what you cast will bear no fruit. Don’t worry about that. Scatter the seed of the Gospel with no regards to what it will bear. The word will be received in my different ways, but how it is received is not your concern. That it’s received is your concern.

As you scatter seed, you are going to see it opposed by the sinful nature, and by Satan, and by the fallen world we live in. As you scatter seed, you are going to see the Gospel promise snatched away from apathetic or misunderstanding hearts before it even has a chance to grow roots. As you scatter seed, you are going to see newborn faith choked out by the busyness of the world or scorched by the heat of persecution. As you scatter seed, you are going to see that most of it never bears fruit that lasts.

And if this is what you focus on, then your sowing arm is going to get tired really quickly. Your excitement to plant new Gospel seeds is going to fade quickly. You may even stop trying altogether if you are primarily concerned with how many of the seeds you plant sprout and flourish. You may forget, or doubt the words of Jesus when he says, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Gospel seeds are no good when they remain in the sower’s bag. A farmer’s seeds are guaranteed to do nothing when they sit in the hopper.

I think another of Jesus’ parables applies here. A master left his servants with an amount of money to use while he was gone. The first two put it to use and earned a return. The third servant hid his away and didn’t use it. The master commanded, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas… I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Lk 19:24,26).

 

It’s all about a shift in perspective. I’ve always heard and known, “Don’t focus on the outcome. Focus on doing the work.” But every time I’d find myself anxiously waiting for those VBS registrations to come in. Or waiting with bated breath for someone new to walk in on Sunday. Because we always want to quantify something. So, I’ll never forget the encouragement from our presenter from Praise and Proclaim Ministries a couple years back: “Count gospel seeds. Count seeds planted.” Faithfully plant the seeds of God’s Word, rejoice that Gospel Seeds are going out! And leave the rest up to God. You sow. God makes it grow.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

 

What do you do with Gospel Seeds? Sow them! God makes them grow! He will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it.

I know it isn’t always easy. I know it’s hard not to focus on results and grow weary of casting Gospel Seeds while there’s seemingly no return. Leave that up to God. Because even the hardest packed hearts can be softened by God’s Word. How many of us were once that hard-packed path? Even rocky hearts or lives filled with choking weeds can be overcome and cultivated by God’s Word. How many of us have gone through those times in life and been brought back by seeds that were sown in our hearts? God’s Law gets things ready, crushing rocks of pride and cutting off the thorns of life that entangle us. Then, the gospel seed – packed with the power of God for salvation – tells of a love so great. A saving love that penetrates our hearts and gives birth to faith and trust.

There’s one other thing, as well, that can be very difficult to do. It can be very difficult to divide up the sowers, and send some to a new field – like Trinity is working toward as we send some sowers to focus their efforts on the Waco area. That’s tough. We miss our friends. The work remains but the workers are divided – do we have enough remaining here? It’s in God’s hands. Our mission is making disciples. Our mission is sowing Gospel seeds upon whatever soil is in our reach. And sometimes that means looking up from the one corner of the field we have been working on and seeing that there is more within our reach. You sow. God makes it grow.

Although it’s not to be our main concern, God does comfort us in our tireless efforts by revealing what these seeds can do when they do land on good soil. It takes root. It bears fruit! And do you know what’s in fruit? More seeds! “The seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown” (Mt 13:23).

That’s the really neat thing about seeds. One seed can produce hundreds more! Ralph Emerson, a famous American essayist and philosopher, once said, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” It’s the same thing that God says through Isaiah. As rain waters the earth so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty” (Is 55:10-11). Even though the seeds that fall on good soil are in the small minority, those seeds that do take root flourish and multiply! There’s nothing lost in sowing Gospel Seeds. Nothing lost in dividing up workers throughout the harvest field. Only seeds that sprout, flourish, bear fruit, and multiply what once was sown.

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