An archive of the most recent sermons by Pastor Ehlers.

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

February 15, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

God’s Power is Awesome

Isaiah 6:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Word Stands (February 3, 2019)

February 15, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

The Word Stands

Luke 4:20-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Worshiping with Jesus (January 27, 2019)

January 28, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Worshiping with Jesus

Luke 4:14-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talk to Me (January 20, 2019)

January 23, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Talk to Me

Ephesians 3:14-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heaven Opened for You (January 13, 2019)

January 14, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Heaven Opened for You

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Have you ever just gotten done reading about an individual in the Bible and just thought to yourself, “Wow. Now there’s a faithful Christian!” And yet, in the back of your mind, what you are really thinking, what you are despairing about is, “Whoa. That’s how God wants me to live?! I could never measure up.” Take Elijah, for instance. He stood up against some of the worst kings in Israelite history because God told him to. He trusted that God would keep him fed through a drought by placing himself in the care of a widow and her son who were getting ready to eat what they thought would be their last meal. He went toe to toe against the 450 prophets of the false god Baal so that God could display his wonders. In fact, he was so faithful, we might think, that he was one of the very few people in the Bible who didn’t die. God sent a fiery chariot and took him to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). He was even one of the two who appeared with Jesus on the mountain when he was transfigured. How could we even measure up?

Or take Peter, the bold spokesman of the disciples, faithful follower of Jesus. Peter wholeheartedly trusted Jesus and walked out to Jesus on top of the water! When Jesus asked whom the disciples said he was, Peter was right there with the perfect answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Or, when Jesus prophesied that all the disciples would fall away the night he was betrayed, it was Peter who bravely declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:33). After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter was so excited to see Jesus that he jumped out of a fishing boat and swam toward Jesus rather than waiting for it to come ashore. And it was Peter who boldly stood before thousands on the day of Pentecost to preach a very stern sermon to all those who had crucified Jesus – whether directly or indirectly. Wow. How could we ever grow to that level?!

One other such individual, was John the Baptist. We actually aren’t given many glimpses into John’s life of faithfulness and bold service. Much of the chapters dedicated to him talk about his preaching in the wilderness. Yet, I’d argue that although we don’t have many snapshots of his life, he made more of an impact than many of the other prophets and apostles in the Bible. He too was a bold and moving preacher. He too was profound in his wisdom as he preached, and unabashedly called out sin, urging people to repent. And the main reason why I think he was perhaps greater than many of the other prophets and apostles was because of what it says right here in these verses. “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ” (Lk 3:15). Now that’s saying a lot. These people didn’t identify just anyone as the Christ. In fact, you can see how reluctant many of them were to even call Jesus the Christ. So there was something about John that just amazed, wowed, and inspired the people.

But there was something missing. Not in the people’s eyes – they thought John was the real deal! There was something missing though. John, obviously knew that he was not the Christ. And he humbly pointed to his own unworthiness, his own lowliness in the face of the Christ, because he knew that he could never measure up. “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16). John knew his own inadequacies, and his own sinfulness, even though we might point to him as a hero of faith. In fact, if you go back to my two previous examples, reading their whole story, you will also see that people we hold up on pedestals are no different than you and me. Elijah, that great prophet whom God worked powerfully through, was terrified by the powers against him. When he was threatened with death he ran for his life into the wilderness, but then strangely prayed for that very thing, “I have had enough, Lord” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kg 19:4). And Peter too, despite clearly confessing that Jesus was the Christ, there were moments when he was rather confused on just what that meant. Despite boldly claiming that he would never disown Jesus, it was Peter who denied even knowing him. And there were many other times when he hastily jumped to action before really considering what the godly thing to do would be.

The fact is, sin infect us all. You may look through the pages of Scripture or even look around at the people in this room. There may be some that you respect and uphold for their faithfulness – which is a good thing – but then you may despair thinking, how could I ever be like them? How could I ever live up? Every one of us strives to live a god pleasing life, yet every one of us also fails time and time again. That’s because sin infects every one of us. From the moment we are born – even from conception – we are stillbirths, spiritually speaking. Maybe that strikes a chord with some of you personally. I’m sorry for bringing that up, but this is the reality. This should strike a chord with every one of us. We are all born spiritually dead. Every one of our children is born spiritually dead. That’s tragic. That’s scary. That’s something that can’t be taken lightly. Especially because throughout the Bible God declares a specific judgment with finality against those who are not reborn with the Spirit – those who are not brought from death to life. Here, John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:17). The chaff is the dead, unusable part of the grain. It’s worthless to the harvester. It’s tossed into the unquenchable fire. If left the way we were born, every one of us is destined for this fire.

But amongst the crowds gathered to hear John out in the wilderness, there walks a man who is different. Not just in the way he would speak, not just in the level of his teaching, or the dedication of his service to God. This one was foundationally different from birth, and yet strikingly familiar. Jesus wasn’t born a spiritual stillborn – the only one since the fall into sin. His whole life was lived in perfection. Perfect service to God. Perfect obedience to the Word. He never knew sin. And on the day he was baptized by John, heaven itself even opened for God the Father to declare his approval of Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). And the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came down and remained on Jesus. That didn’t happen for anyone else in the Bible. That didn’t happen for anyone else in history. That couldn’t happen to anyone else but Jesus.

Yet Jesus didn’t lord it over the people. He didn’t elevate himself above others or seclude himself to be visited by only the most noble. He never expected you to be like him. Rather, he came to be like you in all aspects except sin. He was born in flesh, just like yours and mine. He breathed the same air you breath and walked the very same earth you walk. He went out into the wilderness to hear the great prophet of his day – went to where John was preaching. He stood among the crowd of common, everyday people – tax collectors, soldiers, all kinds of other people. All kinds of sinners. He stood among them, and became one with them not only in his birth, but also in his obedience to God’s Word. He became one of them in his birth. He became one with them in his baptism. And God declared about Jesus what he could not say about any other human being on their own, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).

All the heroes of the Bible we look up to and strive after, are not worthy of such a declaration. In fact, John the Baptist, whom Jesus himself called “greatest among those born of women” (Mt 11:11), insists upon his own unworthiness, “I’m not even worthy to untie the straps of his sandals. I’m not worthy to perform the task of the lowliest of his servants.” And deep down, each one of you must know that you are not worthy of such a declaration. Not on your own at least.

Let’s take the focus off of that important phrase of God’s approval for Jesus for a moment and back up a bit. Jesus was baptized. Why was Jesus baptized? What is baptism? The Bible says that John “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). The second reading for today defines baptism as something God uses to save us. “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). But what sins did Jesus need to be forgiven of? What did he need to be saved from? Didn’t we just talk about how Jesus was not like us in our sinfulness? The prophet Isaiah says that the Christ would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Is 53:12). In fact, Jesus quotes this prophecy about himself shortly before he was crucified. And we often associate this prophecy with Jesus’ death. In his death, God laid on him the sins of us all. But really, all of Jesus’ life was lived as a substitutionary life for ours. His whole life was an offering in place of ours. So, in his baptism too, Jesus unites his baptism with the baptism of all sinners in order to take their place. In his baptism he was numbered with the transgressors so that he could be your Substitute for your redemption.

So as you, born spiritually stillborn in sin, were brought to the waters of baptism, you were reborn through the Holy Spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit give birth to spirit” (Jn 3:6). You are renewed. And in your baptism, you were united with Christ in his baptism, and you come out of those waters with the best part of the deal. Your sins are laid on him to go to his cross, and his holiness, his righteousness, is laid on you to open heaven for you. Do you know what that means? It means that God’s approval of Jesus for doing all things well goes with his righteousness. It means that what God declared to Jesus at his baptism, he now declares to you also through your baptism, “You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

You don’t have to go through life trying to live up to the great people of the Bible. Actually, if you want to look at someone from the Bible, look at Jesus. He’s really the only one who lived a perfect life – who never did anything wrong or had any moments of weakness. But as you look at Jesus’ life, don’t look at in the sense of, “Whoa, how could I ever live up to God’s expectations.” Rather, look at it with this conviction, “Wow, because I have been united with Christ in baptism, this perfect life with God’s stamp of approval is really my life in God’s eyes. Because of that, I am a new person! And heaven is open to me!”

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Where Shall We Find Him? (January 6, 2019)

January 9, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

Where Shall We Find Him?

Matthew 2:1-12

I think many of you know that I’m a car enthusiast. And for those of you who don’t, “Hi, I’m Benj, and I’m a car enthusiast.” Yes, I’m the who buys the car not just for gas mileage and creature comforts, but for looks, road manners, speed and power. I’m the guy who actually reads through the owner’s manual of any car I buy, and not just to figure out how to set the presets on the radio. I love watching shows about cars and reading reviews about cars I am interested it. In fact, I recently watched a video simply describing the innovative functions of the new Audi A7’s headlights. They’ve got everything from dynamic blinkers, to an LED matrix that uses cameras to dim only the portion of the beam where there is an oncoming car. It’s all really interesting to me, and I love learning about that stuff!

I know it’s something different for all of us. Just as I know car details that might bore some, I know some of you know football statistics that I don’t find all that interesting. Others of you know the names of all the different ways you can sew a seam, and still others could whip up a recipe with ingredients like bay leaves or balsamic vinegar. We all have our interests – those things we like digging into all the minute details and fun facts of.

You also all know that I’m a pastor. That’s why I’m up here. As a pastor, I get to spend a good portion of my time digging into the minute details and brilliant applications of God’s Word. I’ve plumbed the depths of certain books of the Bible and traced the lives of individuals throughout the Bible. And I’ll tell you, that even with all the studying and digging I’ve done, there’s still so much more I could uncover. There are still many marvelous truths that God is waiting to reveal to me. Of course, this study of God’s Word is not reserved only for pastors. God’s Word is meant for all Christians. God reveals his wonders to all people. So, whether you are 4 years old, looking at the pictures as mommy and daddy read to you from your children’s Bible, or if you are 80 years old gleaning as you read from the notes you’ve scribbled in the margins over the years, there is always something more to learn – always some deeper truth waiting to be revealed.

And sometimes God uses miracles to invite us to plumb the depths of his Word. One such miracle was a special star that God sent for a very specific audience – the Magi. The Magi were likely royal advisors from Babylon. They were perhaps astronomers who studied the stars and plotted the courses of the planets. But what is truly amazing is that they knew at least the very basics of the promise of the Messiah. This was perhaps a remnant of the gospel passed down over hundreds of years from the time of Daniel. However they knew, they immediately made the connection between this special star and the one to be born “the king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). However God made the star, it served its purpose of leading the Magi to the Child born in Bethlehem. And in so doing, God also demonstrated his power over the laws nature that he established long ago.

However, God doesn’t always use miracles to lead us to him. In fact, nature, even when it is simply going along with the laws that God established declares the glory and wisdom of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth” (Ps 19:1-4). So, all the wonders and order of creation point to a God who is mighty in power and loving in action. Yet here, on this night, God broke the refrain of nature’s declaration to ring out a special chorus that a new King is born! He is Christ, the Lord.

The problem with nature’s declarations is that, although heavens and earth ring out loud and clear that there is a God, it’s hard to tell the details from nature. You could dig into the earth. You could study the order of nature. You could plot the courses of the heavens and marvel at the One who made them all, but none of these will tell you the details. None of them tell you just who the Savior is. That’s one of the reasons the Magi traveled so far to see this newborn king. They knew of him, but they wanted to learn about him. For this reason, God, in his wisdom, also had them make a pitstop in Jerusalem to learn a little more before they saw the Child himself. It seems that God made the special star disappear right as they were getting so close. He did this so that they would be forced to investigate. And by God’s plan, their investigation led them straight to the “owner’s manual” – to the pages of Scripture.

It’s surprising to see that although the Jews must have known about the Messiah – even Herod probably did, despite not being Jewish – it’s surprising that they all missed it. They weren’t watching and waiting for the Messiah to come and they missed him. Although they might want to blame it on not having all the information, they knew that wasn’t true. The same goes for you and me, who may be happily ignorant about some of the details of our Savior and our salvation. In Bible class we learned that all these symbols on the Chrismon trees have to do with Christ and tell us something about Christ. But what does a fish have to do with Jesus? Hear the Scriptures proclaim that just as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish for three days, so the Son of Man will be three days in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40). That detail certainly would have relieved a lot of anxiety from the hearts of despairing disciples after Jesus died and was buried. Or – it’s up on the trees, but I’ll show you right here – what does this “A” and “horseshoe” mean? The Bible tells us that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. But what does that mean for me? Dig into the Scriptures and you will see that even though Jesus was born, he has always been since the beginning. And even though Jesus died, he would be raised to life never to die again. More personally, the Bible also says that Jesus “who began a good work in you” – that is the work of faith – “will carry it on to completion” – that is on the Last Day when you will enjoy your salvation not only in part, but in the fullness of all God’s glory! What else is there that you have had questions on, or been a little unsure of all the details? All of Scripture is in your hands to delve into. In Scripture God reveals himself and his plan of saving you in such great detail!

And now we have the Magi, and king Herod, knowing exactly where to go for more details. “He called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, and asked them were the Messiah was to be born” (Mt 2:4).He knew that the ones who knew the details of the Old Testament Scriptures, who read it, copied it, and taught from it regularly would certainly know the details. As Scripture itself says, those who know the Holy Scriptures even from infancy are “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). It’s easy to see who the wise ones really were. Although the chief priests and teachers of the law had the details, “You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Mt 2:6), they did not have the sense to act on those details. It was the Magi who were truly wise and continued their trek of hundreds of miles just the last 7 from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Herod could have gone – if he truly wanted to worship him. The chief priests and teachers of the law could have easily made the trip, if they truly cared. But they didn’t. They just read a prophecy about the Messiah to tell the magi where to go. Isn’t this the Messiah they’ve been waiting for and hoping for? Why didn’t they go?!

How often have we been like the chief priests and teachers of the law? Having full access to all the details, cherishing them as very important to us, yet don’t allow this head knowledge and faith of the heart to spur us into action? How often do we allow excuses and laziness to prevent us from making the trek to sit at Jesus feet here with fellow believers or from opening the Scriptures even in our own homes? The Magi traveled hundreds of miles thirsting for their Savior. Yet we who have easy access to springs of living water, may rarely make it to the bookshelf in our own homes to fill up on the wisdom of salvation.

It all came together for these believers from a distant land. God once again demonstrated his authority over nature and caused the special star to reappear and go on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was (Mt 2:9). They also had the details of Scripture leading them to “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” (Mt 2:6). When they finally arrived at the house and saw the Child with his mother Mary what they knew in their heads and believed in their hearts spurred their hands and feet to action. “they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:11). Standing was out of the question. The Holy Spirit convinced these men of just whom this child was. In their country they would drop to their knees and touch their foreheads to the ground to show how humble they felt and how much greater than them was the One they were honoring. So, on their knees and bowed down low they showed reverence to the newborn King, their Savior.

The Lord knows our weakness. He knows that we are often weak in the flesh what our believing hearts so long to do. On our own we cannot find the Savior or the answers for life’s questions no matter how wise we may be. For us too, the Lord may sometimes increase our eagerness to find our Savior and worship him by “removing the star,” so to speak. So, as the magi were forced to seek help, God saw to it that they were driven to his Word. Help came from his Word.

Sometimes the lack of action on our part is because we do not fully understand our need until God reveals it to us. So, in our lives, he may “remove the star,” forcing us to seek help. And believers, moved by the Holy Spirit, know exactly where to find help. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 124:8). Help comes from God. Help comes from his Word. Into the Scriptures believers go, seeking Him with all the passion and dedication that led the Magi over miles of unforgiving terrain. Into the Scriptures believers go to find the help they need in all the stunning detail that God provides! Into the Scriptures believers go to see that God lovingly fills the need that he perhaps created to drive us to him. Into the Scriptures wise believers go to bow down and worship the King.

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My Brother is Bigger (December 30, 2018)

January 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

My Brother is Bigger

Hebrews 2:10-18

He played football for the Pittsburgh Steelers through the 70s. Four time Superbowl Champion, and right here from our own backyard. “Mean” Joe Greene is truly a hometown hero of Temple, TX. They even dedicated a field to him right here in Temple, just over a year ago. And even though I may not be a Steelers fan, or even really get that into football, we all love a good hometown hero! In fact, in my search for more hometown heroes of Temple, TX, I found that a couple years ago a radio station would pick a new “hometown hero” to honor each week. There’s just something exciting and uplifting in being able to say, “He’s from here you know! He’s one of us!”

Can you think of any other “hometown heroes?” Or, are there heroes in your family that you are proud of? Maybe you have a relative who received a special medal or recognition for his or her service to their country. Maybe a family member has a patent on something that is used every day. For me, my family hero is a nurse who helps bring new life into this world. One life, in particular, I’m particularly proud of my aunt for delivering; or rather, thankful for saving. Although I may not have actually been in any serious danger, I’m very thankful my aunt was staying with my family the morning of my birth. You see, I came pretty quickly. I was actually born in the kitchen. And my aunt was able to offer medical help until the EMTs got to the house. For that, my Aunt and I share a special connection. She even took my wife and I through pregnancy and delivery classes and assured us that she was only a phone call away if we needed anything.

With all that in mind, or with your own hero in mind, most of us probably wouldn’t be able to associate too closely with someone who is called the “pioneer of salvation” or “the anointed one” or even “the Son of God.” But, believe it or not, Jesus wants you to think of him as your “hometown hero.” Or, even better, your “big brother.” You see, he came for you. He didn’t remain in heaven seated at the throne of God with all glory and praise. He didn’t come to help the angels, but for you, “Abraham’s descendants,” true children of God through faith. And he went to great lengths to have this close of a relationship with you. He gave up his honor and glory. He gave up full use of his divine power. He was born of a woman so that he had to grow, as the gospel reading puts it, “grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). Can you even fathom that? How the God who upholds all of creation and preserves every life had to be given human life and be held in Mary’s arms. How the God who searches me, knows me, and perceives my thoughts from afar (Ps 139) had to learn how to walk and how to talk. How the God who bound Satan and commands the forces of the world saying, “This far you may come and no farther” (Job 38:11) could be tempted in every way just as you and I are.

In this way, it’s as if you grew up together – you and your brother Jesus. He experienced all the same things you experienced and is able to help you through every trial or challenge in life. That’s why the Bible says, “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18). Your big brother, Jesus, has been there, done that. He’s experienced it. He knows what you are going through, and he’s here to help you.

That’s why Jesus was born in the flesh. That’s why we needed Christmas. That’s why we needed one who could call us brothers and sisters. It was God’s way of coming to us in our need and in our distress. “So Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters” (Heb 2:11). We could never make it to him, or reach out to him, so he came to us.

Yet, he couldn’t simply just be one of us. Just another human being would become entrapped by sin, just as we are. Just another human being would never be able to rescue us, much less himself. So he also needed to be much more. He needed to be holy in every way, so that “both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family” (Heb 2:11). He also needed a special skill set. He needed to be a hero. He needed to be God.

That’s why Jesus had to be born of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we needed Christmas. That’s why we needed “the pioneer of salvation” (Heb 2:10) to come to where we are to rescue us.

It actually reminds me of another rescue mission that happened not too long ago. Even the most skilled described this rescue mission as among the most dangerous they have attempted. The mission was to rescue 12 boys and their coach from a treacherous and submerged cave in Thailand. The group was exploring the caves when a flash flood trapped them. They were about 4 kilometers from the entrance, on a muddy, elevated rock, surrounded by water. They were weak from lack of food, but hopes of rescue were high. In order to make this rescue, however, highly skilled divers had to navigate miles of dark, murky, and narrow tunnels swirling with strong currents. They had to go into the belly of the cave to rescue those who had been swallowed by it. And the hardest part, was bringing the unskilled, untrained boys safely out.

This cave rescue is not unlike the predicament that you and I were found in. They were trapped about 1 kilometer under a mountain, you and I are trapped under a heap of sin and death. They were weak from lack of nourishment and some suffered from illness, we are weak from a lack of spiritual food and the sin that infects us. A rescue mission was dangerous, required perfect planning, and would even cost a life – in both cases.

Like the cave divers who rescued the boys needed to be able to navigate the swirling currents and murky waters of the cave to bring, not only themselves home safely, but also the boys, so Jesus had to be able to navigate the pulling temptations of sin and the valley of the shadow of death to bring “many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). We are not able to rescue ourselves from sin. We aren’t able to prevent our own spiritual death. And every moment we remain trapped in sin is one moment closer to our eternal condemnation. We need a rescue. We need one who can come to where we are, perfectly execute a rescue plan, and strengthen us along the way as we await the complete fulfilment of that rescue.

In all of this, the birth of Christ that we just celebrated can never be separated from the passion of Christ that lies just months ahead in the church year. His coming into our lives is closely tied with him saving our lives. The baby of Bethlehem is the future victim on Golgotha. The Author and Source of our salvation could not win that salvation unless he was born so that he could die. And in order to be born and die, he needed to become our brother, yet bigger in every way.

Remember how I said that Jesus was like your big brother in that you grew up together and experienced all the same things together? Well, there’s a couple more things that he’s experienced that you haven’t yet. They are pretty big things. The first, will sooner or later happen to every single one of us. It’s death. I don’t know if you have thought much about your own death yet. But in a way, death enslaves us all. In fact, the Bible even says that Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:15). Yes, I think of death enslaving us because there is no escaping it. But are you really enslaved by the fear of death? I didn’t really think so until I began to ask myself questions about what if it happened right now? Often I don’t fear it because I put it out of my mind and I know where I am going. But what if it happened right now? What will happen to those I’ve left behind? What if it was a long, drawn out process of hospital visits, and stays in a nursing home, and a huge toll on me physically, emotionally, and mentally? Then it becomes a little more real. Death, is not something that is glorious or glamorous as many heroic tales would have us believe.

However, your brother Jesus has been there. He led the way. He went in first. And he took upon himself the ugliest part of death. There certainly wasn’t anything glamorous about the way that Jesus died. His body was disfigured and stained from the beatings he sustained before he even went to the cross. And as he hung on the cross, he suffered dehydration and suffocation. But that wasn’t even the ugliest part. That wasn’t even the worst of suffering. The worst was having God the Father turn his back on him. The worst was being abandoned by God so that he would not save him from the tormenting pits of sin. He would not be rescued, but God laid on him the iniquity of us all. That’s the ugliest part of death. Not the physical pain you may endure or the mental instability, but the guilt of sin and condemnation from God. These things you will never know because your brother took the blame for you and was punished in your place.

And he did it so that you could share in the last thing with him. The first verse from the reading today, verse 10, is a little bit hard to order – a little bit hard to read. There’s a number of different thoughts all heaped upon one another because they are all so tightly connected. But I’m going to read it in a little different order to bring out the sense for this last part of the sermon. “It was fitting that God should make the pioneer of your salvation complete through what he suffered by bringing many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). The last thing you and your brother will experience together is glory. Because he was born in the flesh to call you brothers and sisters, because he gave up his life in your place but as true God took it back up again, you will pass through dangers and death to inherit the same kind of glory that you brother Jesus inherited. That’s what the word “help” depicts in verse 16. “surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants” (Heb 2:16). The word there is “laid hold of.” “Laid hold of to draw out.” I picture one of those Thai Navy Seals laying hold of one of those boys, looking him squarely in the eyes and saying, “trust me,” as they go under the water and he draws him through the tunnels to the surface. It’s your big brother Jesus laying hold of you, looking you squarely in the eyes and saying, “trust me.” So that as you breathe your last here on earth, the next will be your first breath with him in glory.

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A Light has Dawned (December 24, 2018)

January 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

A Light has Dawned

Isaiah 9:2-7

In a few moments, after the sermon, we are going to dim the lights in the sanctuary and watch as light goes out from the Christ candle and is passed throughout the congregation. It’s maybe something you’ve done year after year. But why? Why do we do this? Is it just tradition? Is it simply emotionally moving and hearkens back to all that we know and love about Christmas Eve services? Or is there something deeper? It’s actually meant to symbolize the Light going out into the world and overcoming the darkness in the world around us, and in our own hearts.

Isaiah starts out his prophecy of the Christ child by saying, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2). But Isaiah seems to be presuming a lot with this prophecy. And I may seem to be presuming a lot by saying that this text is still relevant for us to read and study today. Is our world really that dark? It may be a bit flawed, but completely dark? Pitch black? That’s what Isaiah says, “people walking in darkness” (Is 9:2). In fact, he even takes it a step farther and says they are “living in the land of deep darkness” (Is 9:2).

But that was then, this is now. Isaiah lived in the land of Israel. He was warning the people of Judah that they would be threatened and eventually invaded by a nation that was not afraid to make examples of the conquered. They would torture those they conquered, and pile up the bodies in pyramids. But this looming shadow of darkness and destruction was not the darkness that Isaiah was warning the people of. The impending destruction by a foreign nation was not the darkness that the people of Judah really needed to worry about. It was the darkness of their own nation. It was the darkness they were walking around and living in. And Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what that darkness looked like.

People do not care for one another but are always fighting “neighbor against neighbor.” There is rampant substance abuse, as people are considered “heroes at drinking wine” – “staying up late at night till they are inflamed with wine.” There is immorality, the country is full of poor, and yet there is no mercy for them – no compassion. There is no respect for the elderly. Many people have walked away from true faith and have turned to the occult. Keep in mind, these are all things that Isaiah points out about the land he lived in – things that the almighty God called them out on.

Yet, doesn’t that description, that condemnation, sound strikingly similar to the land we live in today? It seems that the more things change, the more they really stay the same. Do we not see abhorrent violence when we flip to any news station? Do we not see the collapse of family as respectful values are not passed down to the next generation? Do we not see neighbors turning on neighbor over the pettiest things, and when love is shown, it’s however you want to define it? We too have problems. We too are living in darkness. But sadly, many are ok with it. Many have gotten used to it. And those who do see it as a problem think that something can be done about it. But that would be taking the darkness too lightly. That only comes from a flawed understanding of just how dire this darkness is.

The first time Isaiah uses the word “darkness,” he uses a fairly general term that can signify “distress” or “dread” or even “ignorance.” But then he repeats and intensifies his statement. He calls it “deep darkness.” This is the same word used in the famous Psalm 23 “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” So if we kid ourselves, thinking, it’s really not all that bad in our time and at this place, Isaiah would ask, “Oh, really? Are you not dying?” The inevitability of death casts a shadow – a gloom – over everything. This is not the way God intended the world to be. Although we think of death as something natural, it’s not! It’s a result of sin. It’s a sign that we are living in spiritual darkness.

It gets worse. Isaiah says we are walking in darkness. We stroll around in it casually. This is not something we were thrust into kicking and screaming. We willingly embrace it. And you probably see it best in situations where you are faced with a choice between serving others or serving self. We tend to gravitate toward the self-serving choice – at the very least, the thought lingers there in our minds making the choice a little more difficult.

The sad fact is, the world is a dark place. We tend to think we can make it better. We think we can rid the world of things like violence, oppression, poverty, and racism. Yet can we even drive the darkness our of our own hearts? Perfectly? Permanently? Can you stop yourselves from the dark effects that sin has in our lives? From aging? From dying? If we cannot rid our lives of darkness, why would we think we can rid the world of it?

The good news is, a light has dawned! And this light is not something man produced. It just appeared. It “dawned.” This light is not a relief program. No program can rid the world of darkness. This light I a person. More specifically, this light is a baby boy – the child born for us, the Son given for us. It is Jesus, the Christ.

This child is a human being, born of his human mother, Mary. Yet he is much more. He is also God – as seen by the titles and responsibilities he is given. He is the “Wonderful Counselor.” Unlike all other counselors whose advice is tainted by the fact that they do not know everything, this counselor does know everything. He’s also “Might God” – the child who can do anything and always follows through on his promises. He is the “Everlasting Father” – source of life, and compassionate in preserving life. Finally, he’s called the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). He is able to create perfect harmony, peace. Most notably, he establishes peace between a holy God who hates sin and people who sin every day. God’s just punishment for sin, and his mercy for sinners meet in the child who was born to die. That’s what the angels sang about on that first Christmas Eve. “Peace for all peoples,” brought by this newborn prince.

Clearly, the Bible identifies him as both fully God and fully man. But why? Why did this “Light” need to be both God and man? Well, if God simply wanted to tell us how to think about darkness and sin, he could have just sent a man. In fact, that’s what he did with the prophets, who gave us God’s Law which shows us how to live a bright, beautiful life. If God wanted to give us an example of how to live a perfectly bright life, he could have just sent an angel, like the angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary. God could have just said, “Everyone, look at how compassionate and thoughtful Gabriel is. Look at how he always thinks of others before himself. Look at how his entire existence is about giving me, God, glory. Just live like Gabriel!” But that would not have been enough. We needed one who could snuff out the darkness. We normally think of light being “snuffed.” But we needed darkness – sin and its consequences, including death – to be snuffed out. That required the Light to be both God and man. The Light needed to be man, so that he could be sacrificed for our sin. The child needed a beating heart and blood in its veins, so that it could be shed. But the life of one man, could never atone for another. So the Light needed to also be God, so that the sacrifice made when his light was snuffed out was valuable enough to pay for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived.

The gift of Christ is a gift you receive with humility. There are some gifts that one cannot receive without humility. Imagine for Christmas your significant other gave you the gift of a gym membership for one year. You look at your gut. You look at the certificate for the gym. You make the connection. Your loved one is telling you something – perhaps something you do not want to acknowledge. It is no different with this greatest Christmas gift, the Light of Christ. In giving this gift, God is saying to you and to me, “You are broken, and lost, but I’m here to do something about it.” The situation is so dire, it will require the perfect man, Jesus, to die for you. You do not receive that gift without humility.

So, our prayer this Christmas Eve is that the Spirit would give us just that – humility. We need him to help us understand we cannot cleanse ourselves of sin, cannot overcome temptation, cannot fix our fractured relationships (including the one with our Creator), cannot outrun the shadow of death. We are immersed in too much darkness. But a Light has dawned. And this light can do all those things. The Light has done all those things.

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The Child that Broke the Mold (December 23, 2018)

January 2, 2019
Benjamin Ehlers

The Child that Broke the Mold

Genesis 4:1-2, 6-8, 25-5:5

The first reading for today, from Genesis 4 and 5, paints a pretty dismal picture, doesn’t it? It doesn’t really seem like the kind of text we would read and meditate on just days before Christmas. It doesn’t seem to follow the Advent crescendo to the bursting joy and glory of Christmas. It seems out of place with its talk of murder and death. But this is exactly what we need to hear just before Christmas. Without the reality of what the world became after the fall – filled with death and ruin – we cannot fully appreciate the birth of the child in the manger. We could never cherish the Savior enough unless we realize just what he saves us from. So, we have the true story of Cain and Abel – the story of all mankind.

Before we dig into the text, however, I want you to consider which death is more shocking. There’s two of them in this reading. There’s the obvious one: Cain killing Abel. But then there’s also the one right at the end of the reading. “Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died” (Gen 5:5). With either death, it wasn’t meant to be this way. God’s creation was very good. He created mankind in his own image. And we know from scripture it’s not a physical image, it’s a spiritual image. It’s shown in the blessings God gave them right after he created them. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘be fruitful and increase in number;’” (It’s God, in a way, giving man and woman his creative power – the ability to bring forth new life!) “’fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (It’s God entrusting mankind with good dominion over his creation). So, being made in the image of God, Man knew God’s will, agreed with God’s will – acknowledging that his will is best. And in the image of God, Adam and Eve joyfully did God’s will.

That is, until they selfishly valued their own will over God’s. And you can immediately see the effects of what the sinful image does. They no longer loved selflessly as God does, but rather selfishly tried to cover up their sin and blame others. Out of love God banished them from the garden so that they would not eat from the Tree of Life again and have to live in this broken image forever. Then God gave them painful reminders in childbirth and working the ground that this isn’t the perfection that God intended. He desired something better for them. So he also made them a promise – the promise that a child would be born to undo what they had done.

The effects of sin continue to be seen throughout their lives. Adam and Eve abruptly met the reality of sin when one day Cain came home, but Abel didn’t. Their first encounter with death – the death that God warned about – was not by natural causes… well, what we now call natural, it certainly wasn’t what God intended. Their first introduction to death was when their oldest son murdered their second child. Cain didn’t appreciate God’s gifts. He didn’t want to accept the blame for his own sinful attitude and downcast face. Like his parents, he didn’t want to repent. And since he couldn’t silence God, he silenced his brother Abel – who, even though he probably didn’t gloat over Cain, his very existence was a reminder of God’s disapproval with Cain’s sin.

It was the first toll of the bell. The first vivid reminder of what sin does. Then you read through Genesis 5 in its entirety, and you are really forced to come to grips with what sin means. Every 3 verses you hear that bell toll again and again and again. “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness… and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died” (Gen 5:3-5). “Then Seth lived… became the father of Enosh… lived some more… and then he died… Then Enosh lived… and then he died… and then he died… and then he died…” (Gen 5). Vayamot… vayamot… vayamot. That one Hebrew word shows up again and again every three verses ringing out the toll of sin. It’s like Adam and Eve had opened up the floodgates of death on all humanity and there’s no hope of stopping it. Now all throughout history and throughout our very lives, that bell tolling has become the all too familiar backdrop. Vayamot… vayamot… vayamot. Anyone who lives, will one day die.

Just as sin was increasing in Cain’s sullen attitude, we see the same sin increase in the world around us. No longer are we born in God’s image, but rather the image of our sinful parents going all the way back to sinful Adam. Whereas Adam originally knew God’s will, agreed with his will, and did it, we must now be taught God’s will. We often disagree with it – not seeing that his intentions are good and gracious. And we often refuse to do his will. As sons and daughters of Father Adam and Mother Eve, we know that our intellect is often frighteningly dull in matters relating to God. Our emotions often deceive us into trying to find joy in what is displeasing to God. And, with the apostle Paul, we must confess that our sinful will is no longer in harmony with God’s holy will (Rm 7:14-17). Because of our sinfulness, the bell will one day toll for us as well. My story and your story will be added to all the others. He lived, he perhaps had sons and daughters. He lived some more. And then he died. Vayamot.

We’ve become so used to its tolling, that it no longer phases us – not as it should. Yes, we are saddened by death – especially when it is someone we know. But we’ve come to a point where we think of it as natural. The bell tolls without fail. That wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t natural for Adam and Eve to find their son murdered. Nor was it even natural for Adam to die “of old age.” And once we realize how this tolling bell pierces mankind with the severity of sin, we realize the need for the child who would be pierced for mankind. We realize the desperate need to silence it’s tolling.

There came a night when that bell was finally consigned to silence. It happened, when God miraculously brought life into the world. That maybe brings a whole new meaning to the hymn “Silent Night.” Every child is a miracle. Any parent knows that. The births of your own children probably stick out in your mind with vivid joy. But there are some births that bring joy to all mankind. Eve’s first child – the first child to ever be born – was a reminder that God would make good on his promise! Despite their sin, despite their banishment from the garden of Eden and their specific punishments, God’s promise stands, “[the woman’s offspring] will crush your head, [Satan]” (Gen 3:15). And here you have it. Not the Child himself – not the Savior – but a child. The first child since the promise. The first reminder that through a long line of decedents would finally come the Savior.

So, we have Eve’s child, the first reminder of the promised Child. Then you have Mary’s child, in the gospel reading. And Mary’s child is the fulfillment of that promise – the child who would break the mold of Genesis chapter 5. All along, quietly but steadily, that bell has been tolling as the backdrop to all history. “And then he died… and then he died… and then he died.” A reminder of the mold that every descendant of Adam would be born in his own image (Gen 5:3) not God’s image. That bell tolled for every person we read about in Scripture, the people we knew who are no longer with us – a solemn toll that there is no other mold, no one escapes the death knell ever since the sin of Adam and Eve. But Mary’s child broke that mold – conceived by the Holy Spirit and born in God’s image. This Child would die too, but his would be different. His death would silence the bell for good.

A brief side note. You were maybe wondering about the Revelation reading and the intense imagery in chapter 12. The woman in that reading is not specifically Mary. Well, it is Mary, but it isn’t. The child, the “male child who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (Rev 12:5), is indeed Christ. And yes, Christ was born of Mary, but the woman in the reading is actually the Church. You can rightly say that Jesus was born out of the church – that line of true believers who held to the promise of the Savior just as we do today. It’s the adornments – clothed with the sun, moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars – that move us away from Mary specifically to the Church in a more general sense. But the really interesting thing about this reading is that it tells the story of Christ from God’s perspective. We’ve seen the details from the human perspective. We read it every year from Luke 2. But here we get a glimpse into what God sees. How fiercely the red dragon, Satan, fought to prevent that child, or snatch him up just after birth. We know of Herod’s plan to get rid of the newborn King – a plan, no doubt, conceived by Satan. What else was going on behind the scenes that we don’t see? What other dangers lurked that God delivered this child from and spared us the details. Could there have been danger on the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that God held at bay? What if they couldn’t find even the simple shelter of the stable? Satan no doubt worked hard to prevent the work of the Savior because he knew it would silence the bell that he started tolling long ago.

But Satan didn’t stand a chance. God is a keeper of promises. He loves to make promises to spur us on, like he did right after Adam and Eve sinned. He gave them hope and a future. He showed them his mercy, a Savior to believe in. And God makes good on his promises. Always. Just as Cain, the first child, was a reminder that God would make good on his promise to send a Savior, so the Savior’s birth (traced through the line of Seth), and his resurrection is a reminder that there is rebirth. There is life! There is a joyous resurrection awaiting all who believe. The bell may still toll. The death knell that started in Genesis 5 still rings on. But that toll is an empty toll for those who put their hope in the Savior – the Savior who triumphed over the grave so that it lost it’s sting. And it all started with the birth of a very special child.

One last thing I want to point out. After Adam and Eve learned, in a very personal way, the toll of sin in the death of Abel, they did not lose hope. They did not despair of life or even refuse to bring more children into the world because of the darkness in it. They did not turn away from God. The faith which the Promise had awakened in their hearts led them to cling to their God. Eve saw the gracious and mighty hand of God in the birth of her new son. In such faith she named him Seth (meaning “substitute”), saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him” (Gen 4:25). Here we find a different spirit from the one which we met when Adam and Eve first sinned, and when Cain killed his brother. Here, we find a spirit of hope and faith. Mary’s child, then, the Christ child would be the ultimate Substitute. Not simply in the place of one lost son, but in the place of every son and daughter than has been lost to sin throughout history. This child would break the mold of sinful flesh, and silence the toll of sin once and for all.

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How a King Cleans House (December 16, 2018)

December 18, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

How a King Cleans House

Zephaniah 3:14-17

Have you done it yet? Have you cleaned up the house, filled the fridge and gotten ready for guests? Just after Thanksgiving my wife and I took some time to wet vac the carpets to get ready for the Christmas brunch at our house. There were a few stains we wanted to clean up after a year of kids running around. We still have to clean up a bit, but that probably won’t happen until we get closer to the day. The law of entropy (law of chaos) happens a lot faster with kids in the house, so it doesn’t pay to clean too early. But we are getting there. If you are having company for the holidays, you maybe have started the process of cleaning up the house as well.

Recently, as my wife and I were cleaning up a bit before some close friends came over, we noticed something interesting. There’s a difference between how you clean up for close family and friends verses cleaning for a first-time visitor or very important guest. For example, if you are cleaning up for close family, your cleaning is probably going to be more relaxed and not as thorough. After all, they know who you are. They know your life. They aren’t going to think any less of you if you don’t have a fresh, decorative hand towel out in the bathroom. But, if you are cleaning before your future in-laws visit, or before a college recruiter visits, you will notice all the clutter and every smudge. You will want your house in picture perfect condition.

Well, there IS a highly esteemed guest coming. He’s actually given you a list of preparations to be completed before he arrives. It’s in the gospel reading from this Sunday and last. “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Lk 3:4). “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance… every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk 3:8-9). Repentance means turning your hearts and minds away from sinful thoughts, away from sinful and selfish motives and set your minds on God’s will. It’s what we talked about last week. Straightening out your heart and aligning it with God’s will. Then, from that true heart of repentance flows actions that are pleasing to God. It’s a heart that is ready to welcome the King!

But who could ever do that? Maybe we can keep much, even most of God’s will by our actions…. Maybe. But who could ever do so with the right attitude and heart. Who could really do so out of love and joy for their Savior 100% of the time? Can our hearts ever be made pure and clean? Can they really ever be prepared to receive our Savior? Our sinfulness runs around our hearts like a toddler messing up our motives and creating more messes than we could ever hope to straighten out.

Imagine this. I’m going back to the house cleaning illustration. Think of all the things you have to clean up and tidy up before your guests arrive before Christmas. Better yet, think of all the things you would want done before a very important person comes to visit for Christmas Dinner. There’s cleaning, there’s picking up, there’s cooking. Maybe you even need to get rid of that ratty couch and make a few improvements. And as you are scurrying around trying to keep your head on straight, you hear a knock at the door. It’s a man offering his cleaning services. He’s got an apron on, a tote filled with cleaning supplies, and a number of other things with him. He’s hunched over from all the strenuous work he’s done. In fact, he doesn’t just offer his cleaning services, he’s insistent upon it, almost barging in as he immediately gets to work. He dusts and vacuums, scrubs the floors and the toilets, even cleans the grout and polishes the floors! By the time he’s done, everything is immaculate. And when you ask him how much you owe him, he says that his services are freely given to anyone who admits they need it.

I know that’s a pretty ridiculous scenario, but isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done for you? Jesus enters your heart unasked and finds it a complete and utter mess. Yet he doesn’t come to ridicule you for it. He doesn’t come to shame. He comes to do something about it. He comes to clean house. That’s what the blood shed on the cross means for you. It means he knows you have a problem and he already did something about it – paying the full price of all sin. It’s what the waters of baptism mean, the cleansing waters which purify you from all sin. It’s what the Lord’s Supper is, a forgiveness for every sin that stains your heart and the strength from Christ to turn our hearts to God!

And this gift of cleansing forgiveness is given freely to anyone who does not turn him away – anyone who admits they need it. No matter how disastrous our lives may seem, no matter how ashamed we are of the condition of our hearts. No heart is too polluted, no sin too great for your Savior to cleanse. That is why he came. He came not to be served as a noble guest, but to serve and give up his life to cleanse you from sin.

Let’s jump back to that scenario once again – you know, the bizarre scenario where someone you didn’t know comes to clean your entire house for free. Yeah, it’s about to get even more bizarre. When the lowly servant is finally says, “It is finished.” When he’s finished cleaning the house, he stands up straight – for what seems like the first time since he entered the house. And as he does, he removes his apron and grunge clothes to reveal the finest clothes of white and gold. You see that he is most definitely a king! He is THE king you’ve been expecting – the very important person, the one who made the demands of all the things that need to be prepared. He came himself, and met those demands for you – every single one of them and to a degree you could never hope to accomplish on your own.

Brothers and sisters, I know my illustration is pretty strange. It probably seems as if it doesn’t really fit well because that would never happen in real life! I get it. No one would ever do something like that. No king would ever prepare his own way. But isn’t that just the point. Who would ever go to such lengths, meet such high demands, put in all the work yet give you all the credit, and do it completely free of charge? Who does that?! Well, your Savior did it. You and I say, “That would never happen, but it did.” And we aren’t just talking about cleaning up a house. He entered into your life – entered humanity by taking on our very flesh. He cleaned up your very life by giving up his. His sacrifice cleansed every stain of sin. And now he reigns in your heart as a majestic king, and you his esteemed guest! He becomes the host of your own heart, and urges you to sit down at his feet and relax as he guides your life.

There’s really two pictures here that show just what kind of reign Christ has in your life. He is a Mighty Warrior, yet a gentle Father. You are safe within his care. Your God conquers his enemies completely so that they can never threaten another soul. He is a Mighty Warrior, not to conquer and subdue you, but to free his people and bring them peace. Then, verse 17 moves quickly to this warrior’s gentle side. He will delight in you, quiet you with his love, and rejoice over you. That sounds more like a father – or even a mother – than it does a Mighty Warrior. But the Lord is both. He is mighty, fierce, and firm when dealing with your enemies of sin, death, and Satan. But he is gentle and compassionate when dealing with you.

There’s only one thing left to do. Your king has come into your heart as a lowly servant to clean house for you. He has defeated your enemies and encourages you to rest in his loving embrace. The only thing left to do is rejoice! It’s actually what this reading starts with. The prophet heaps up calls to rejoice and celebrate. “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem” (Zeph 3:14). If we took a moment to read through this whole book, listen to the prophet’s message in its entirety, we might be left with a bit of an uneasy feeling rather than rejoicing. It’s a short book, but the vast majority of it is a stern warning of destruction. Yet, this is a journey. This is our journey. Yes, God is very stern with sinful people. He disciplines sinners and eradicates sin. But he does so in a way that spares you. In fact, he does so in a way that purifies you – cleans you, through and through. And having been made pure and spotless by the Servant who suffered in your place, you can now rejoice! It’s the only appropriate thought and emotion coming out of the dark destruction of sin and your enemies. One word cannot contain the joy, so the prophet piles up four! Sing! Shout aloud! Be glad and rejoice!

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