Monday, December 09, 2019

Turn and Live

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio during worship yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent.]

Matthew 3:1-12
Once, in the days before cell phones, GPSes, or even Mapquest and Google Maps, I missed the biggest part of a farewell party--thrown for Ann and me--after driving past (and continuing to drive past) the house where it was happening. The party came at the end of my pastoral internship in Michigan.

Ann had gone separately because I needed to make a run to Traverse City before going to the farewell. By the time I finally made it, the whole thing was nearly over. All because I hadn’t asked for directions...and because once I was lost, I didn’t turn back when I should have. When we go wrong, the most sensible thing is to turn around. But I didn't do the sensible thing.

For a long time, as I was going wrong that day on the backroads of Benzie County, Michigan, I was too proud to turn back, too proud to admit that I was going wrong, too proud to find a payphone and call someone who could help me, too proud to confess that maybe Ann had been right about my need of her written directions offered earlier in the day.

Have you ever gone wrong in life, set out in the wrong direction and gotten lost? 

I’m not just talking about the places you drive but also being wrong about
  • the things you’ve thought, 
  • the decisions you’ve made, 
  • the relationships you’ve harmed, 
  • the untruths you’ve told, 
  • the walls you’ve built between God and yourself? 
It’s so easy to lose our sense of direction and end up doing the wrong thing, the hurtful thing, the destructive thing, isn’t it? 

That’s because we’re born with our moral compasses that are askew. 

We actually like to sin. 

We like to play God and travel the lost roads that go away from God. 

We’re so messed up that we sin even when we don’t want to. The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 7: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing." (Romans 7:19)

Like King David, we can confess, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

In today’s gospel lesson, on this Second Sunday of Advent, we meet John the Baptizer,
we meet John the Baptizer, whose message is as much for us today--when we look either to the return of Jesus to this world or the day when, just beyond our deaths, we meet Jesus face to face--as it was when John spoke them to prepare His fellow Jews to meet Jesus in the flesh for the first time. 

Take a look at what John says near the beginning of the lesson, Matthew 3:1-12: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (v.2) 

“Turn around,” John is saying. “You’re going in the wrong direction. Turn back toward the promised Savior and King because He’s bringing His Kingdom soon and you want to be ready!” 

Are you ready to meet Jesus? 

He died on a cross and rose from His tomb and is now ascended into heaven. He is Lord of heaven and earth. So, you will meet Him someday. Are you ready for that?

We may say, “Sure, I’m ready. I try to do the right thing.” God’s Word says, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) 

We may say, “I’m better than most people,” hoping that Jesus will judge us on a curve. But God’s Word says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) 

We may say, “God is gracious and loving. I don’t have anything to fear.” But in God’s Word, Jesus, God in the flesh, says, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33) 

We may say, “I’m a member of Living Water Lutheran Church.” But Jesus says that He will let the wheat and the weeds live side-by-side in His Church until the day of His return. If mere membership in the club were all that it took to be part of God’s Kingdom, John the Baptizer wouldn’t have told his fellow Jews, the Sadducees and Pharisees, “I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). There’s nothing that we can do to make ourselves ready to meet Jesus.

But there is good news! 
Even within the harsh words of John the Baptist in our lesson today. 

After warning that the coming Messiah Jesus had ax in hand to take down all those whose lives don’t bear the fruit of repentance--the fruit of habitual turning back to God--John says (starting at verse 11): “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Did you hear the good news--the gospel--there? 

John is saying, “Look, my baptism here on the Jordan River is nothing but you saying that you’re turning to God.” 

That’s great, of course. But if our being right with God depends on our good intentions, we still end up a long way from God
  • I intend to work out every day but don’t always. 
  • I intend to get enough sleep at night but often don’t. 
  • I intend to write the great American novel but I haven’t yet. 
John’s baptism of repentance was meant to prepare his fellow Jews for Jesus’ Baptism--God’s Baptism--that brings us forgiveness and new life with God. 

It’s this Baptism, Jesus’ Baptism, that changes us, that brings God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into our lives, that daily goes to work to kill off our old sinful selves, and that calls the ever-new, ever-righteous child of God to repent--to turn back--to Jesus. 

It’s this Baptism that helps us to hear God’s call to us to turn to Jesus whenever we get lost and to trust that He has done everything (and is still doing everything) needed to make us right with God--to make us righteous, to trust that He will lead us in the right direction.

John’s imagery is interesting. He says that Jesus will institute a Baptism in “the Holy Spirit and fire.” Later, he says that those who turn from God will burn in “unquenchable fire.” 

Fire is judgment

The Holy Spirit is the One Who brings life into being

Holy Baptism as instituted by Jesus first brings judgment on we who are born in sin, then gives new life from the Holy Spirit

Our call from the moment we’re baptized is to keep turning to Christ, whatever our circumstances, even when we’re lost or afraid or conscious of our sin or overwhelmed. 

We who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire know that as we turn to Christ, our old selves are being drowned or burned away to make way for the new person God is retrofitting us to be, today and for all eternity. 

In Jesus’ Baptism, we die with Jesus and we are raised to be with Him. Saint Paul puts it like this: “We were therefore buried with [Jesus] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)

You and I have a penchant for going in the wrong direction. But the life-giving Word of God, the gospel of Jesus, has entered into our lives in Holy Baptism and comes to us again and again in the Word proclaimed and read and heard, and in the body and blood of Jesus given in Holy Communion to turn us back to Him and to the life that only He can give. 

If you remember nothing else from this message, remember this: Turn to Him as He calls you and live in His Kingdom, today and eternally. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, December 02, 2019

Jesus is Coming Back: Who's Ready?

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday.]

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word advent, you’ll recall, means arrival or the coming of a person or event. In Advent, we wait for the coming of Christmas, of course. More importantly, we await the day when the crucified and risen Jesus, the One Whose birth we celebrate in just a few weeks, will return to this world.

In the Nicene Creed, we confess our belief that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” 

But in the rush of everyday life, we often seem to lose touch with the fact that Jesus, Who has made good on every single promise He’s ever made, will return to this world. 

When He does return, the judgment will happen. Those who have trusted in Christ, surrendering their lives and their wills in the everyday places of life, will live with God for eternity. Those who have not trusted in Christ--who have trusted in themselves, their wits, their money, their families, a false religion, whatever--will be separated from God and from life for eternity. Jesus says, referring to Himself: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” [John 3:18]

It’s to keep the certain promise of His return--and the need to remain constantly focused on following Him--in the forefront of our minds that Jesus speaks the words that make up today’s Gospel lesson. Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 24:36-44.

Verse 36: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

This may be hard for us to imagine! The main characteristic of any human being is the desire to be in control. Yet, here’s Jesus, God in the flesh, saying that even He doesn’t know the day or hour of His return to this world. He’s leaving things totally to the will of the Father, just as He did when He went to the garden of Gethsemane and prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” [Matthew 26:39] 

Anyone who claims to know when Jesus will return, as TV preachers often do, is placing themselves above Jesus. Speculation about when Jesus will return is nothing other than a human attempt to take control of what rightly belongs in the hands of God alone.

Verse 37: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming [or the advent] of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken [to be judged] and the other left [to live]. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken [to be judged] and the other left [to live].”

Jesus asks us here to remember what things were like back in the days before Noah’s flood. There were two ways to look at those days. 

Genesis 6:11-13 tells us how the world looked from God’s perspective: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.’” From God’s point of view, the people of the world were corrupted by sin and violent in all of their dealings. Evil was so bad that God decided to send the flood and destroy every human being who didn’t worship him. 

But, Jesus says, in the days and years leading up to the flood, all but eight members of the human race looked at things in a different light. They went about their business without giving a thought to the corruption, injustice, megalomania, and violence that characterized them and their culture. Pre-flood humanity never knew what hit them or why when the waters rose. The flood came, Jesus says, and took them away. 

The world today is just as corrupt, violent, and selfish as it was in the days before the flood. If the Father were to tell the Son that right now was the moment for Him to return, it wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows and follows Jesus!

Go back to our lesson, please. Verse 42: [Jesus continues] “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

We had our house broken into once. It took us by surprise. The thieves didn’t text us to say, “We’re breaking into your house next week.” 

Just so, Jesus doesn’t tell us when He’s coming back, just that He is and that we need to be ready for it

And exactly why doesn’t Jesus tell us the time of His arrival? That way we could keep on sinning and doing whatever we want and then, just before He comes back or just before we die (assuming He’ll tell us that date too), we could repent. 

People who think this way--and many people do think this way--are under the delusion that salvation is a deal we make with God by saying the right words or doing the right things. Or they think that they'll know the exact moment at which they'll need to be ready, as though God is going to inform them of when Christ is returning or when we're going to die. 

But we can’t negotiate with God. 

We can’t placate Gods with religious acts. 

We can't anticipate the moment when the omnipotent Creator and King of the universe is going to draw the curtain on this old creation and usher in the new one with the return of Jesus.

This very day, God demands that we either adhere to His commandments perfectly, which we cannot do, or that we daily repent and believe Jesus Christ, Who has obeyed God’s Law perfectly, then taken the punishment we deserve for us

It’s people who daily turn to Christ, trusting that He has made us part of His kingdom by grace through faith in Him who are ready not only for Christ’s return but also for whatever life may bring us at any moment.

No matter what our age or education or wisdom or income level, we cannot know the day or hour at which either our own lives or the life of this world will come to an end. We are NOT in control! Please repeat that loudly with me now: WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL! (And that's a good thing!)

Life on this fallen planet is fragile. But Jesus died and rose so that death in this world need not be the ends of our lives.

In John 11:25-26, Jesus promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die…” This is a promise not just that Jesus’ disciples will live with God beyond death. It’s also a promise that God will fill us with life, a life of love and direction, hope and peace, even in the midst of the chaos, pain, grief, and uncertainty of this life.

Advent is the season of waiting for our King to come back. But we don’t wait passively. We await Christ with faith that He’s in control even when our world is unraveling. 

And from the certainty of faith, we watch for ways we can love God and love neighbor, fight for justice, feed the hungry, care for the impoverished, make disciples, take care of our families, love our friends, seek reconciliation with those we have hurt.

We don’t do any of this to earn God’s attention or affection. God already thinks about you all the time. He already loves you and has done everything needed to save you from sin, death, and the devil. He did that when Jesus died and rose for you. And you received a portion in Jesus’ resurrection when you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when the Word of God came to you and you could say, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” It is only faith like this that prepares us for Christ’s return.
Jesus is coming back! We don’t know when, but when He does, may He find us ready, trusting in Him, our lives focused on Him, brimming over with gratitude for grace, filled with faith, and powered by the Holy Spirit to live the lives of love and purpose for which we were made. 

That’s how to be ready for Jesus’ advent!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Is This the King?

[This message was shared earlier today during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 23:27-43
Two things seem, more than others, to show us a lot about who we are and what we believe: how we live and how we die

Some people live and die with arrogance or resentment or fear being the prevailing themes of their living and dying. 

A few live and die with the faith, humility, love, and hope they have been given by Jesus Christ. 

Jesus Himself lived and died with faith, humility, love, and hope, of course. But, on this Christ the King Sunday, we also remember that He lived, died, rose, and lives still as the King and Lord, the Savior and God of the universe.

Kings and other power-holders of the world, you know, like to advertise their power, their supposed strength. They have symbols of their power: homes and offices, jets and helicopters, official seals and aides at their constant beck-and-call.

Jesus, in fact, divested Himself of the power and authority that has belonged to Him from all eternity, in order to reclaim His fallen subjects--you and me--so that all who repent and believe in Him will live in His kingdom forever. He didn't look like a king to most of the people who came in contact with Him.

As Luke tells it in today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 23:27-43, on the day of Jesus' crucifixion only one person--a κακοῦργος in Luke’s manuscript: a doer of bad or of evil, a criminal--saw that even as He died on a cross, Jesus was and is the King. Only this one man saw that Jesus holds life, death, and eternity in His hands. 

When we look to Jesus on the cross, do we see our King? 

And should we? 

Let’s follow Jesus to His cross today to find the answers to these questions.

Our lesson begins by telling us about the grim procession that followed Jesus to a spot called the Skull, apparently a common site for criminal executions outside Jerusalem’s walls. Women, following after Jesus along with the crowds out to see the spectacle of Jesus’ death, weep. Jesus tells them that one day if Jerusalem and the rest of God’s people continue to reject God and His Messiah, destruction will come. Jesus says that the destruction will be so horrible--and that destruction did come to Jerusalem, Israel’s pretensions to nationhood, and the temple in 70 AD--that Jewish women, who always aspired to motherhood, will be considered blessed for not having brought their children into a world of such pain. Jesus says: “...if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (verse 31). 

In other words, “If the Romans do this to one they pronounce innocent, what will they do to a rebellious city.” Or, “...if God [hasn’t] spared His innocent Son, how much worse will it be when the Romans inflict [God’s] judgment on the city?”*

Even on the brink of the agonies of the cross, Jesus isn’t thinking of Himself, but of others. This is a characteristic of a true King, One Who understands that power is never to be used selfishly, but only for the benefit of others.

Beginning in verse 32, we see Jesus being taken to His cross, suspended between two criminals, evildoers.

In ancient times, those who were thought to be righteous or blameless spent their dying breaths cursing those who wronged them or killed them. 

Not Christ the King. 

“Father” Jesus prays, “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (verse 34) 

And, lest we think that this is the prayer of a defeated idealist, we learn in the book of Acts that Jesus, once crucified and now risen, shares His kingly power over sin, death, and darkness to those who believe in Him. The first martyr of the Christian faith was a Greek-cutured Jew named Stephen. Filled with the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus to His disciples, Stephen prayed for his murderers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) 

I don’t know about you, but I am sure that in my own power, I am incapable of forgiving others as Jesus forgives me

This  is why Jesus tells Christians to pray for His power in our living and dying: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Only King Jesus, God the Son, Who lives in those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, can help us to forgive those who have wounded us the way He has forgiven us for the wounds we have inflicted on Him by our sin.

Do you remember that when, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry when He was tempted by the devil, the devil left Jesus vowing to tempt Him again at a more opportune time? Clearly, Satan regarded Jesus' crucifixion as that more opportune time, a time to try to prevent Jesus from fulfilling His mission of dying on the cross for you and me.

At the cross, Jesus is taunted several times at the cross. Each taunt represents a temptation to sin for Jesus, to depart from the will of God the Father. 

Taunt number one: Referring to Jesus’ many miracles, the crowds and the rulers of Jewish religious life say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” (verse 35) But Christ the King didn’t come to save Himself. He had already been safe and sound in His heavenly Kingdom. Instead, He stripped Himself of His advantages as our King to live as one one of us, although He never sinned, to become the perfect sacrifice for our sins. 

Taunt number two: The soldiers mocked Jesus and, playing the part of a king’s cup-bearer, they offered Jesus wine. Only this wine was bitter, like that drunk by the poorest and weakest. “If you are the king of the Jews,” the soldiers tell Jesus, “save yourself.” (verse 37) “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus had asked His disciples at the garden of Gethsemane. “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:53-54) Jesus kept His eyes on the prize, saving us from sin and death by dying on the cross on our behalf. He wanted to save you and me for His kingdom. 

Taunt number three: Verse 38: “There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Pilate had said Jesus was innocent. Yet He had so little regard for Jesus’ life that He sent Him to the cross anyway. In those days, the crimes of the executed were posted on signs above their heads. Pilate mocked both Jesus and God’s people by labeling Jesus the King of the Jews. Yet, Jesus Who could have escaped all the taunting and death itself, chose to remain on His cross.

Taunt number four: Verse 39: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” Be honest: When you’re shown pictures of yourself with family members or friends, who do you look for first? We are born prisoners of self, sinners. There’s no one that we trust more than ourselves. Yet, dead and dying people, we can’t save ourselves from ourselves. Only the King with the love and self-discipline to forget about Himself can save us. Jesus is that King. Jesus says of Himself that “...the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10)

Amid this scene in which the whole world--Jewish and Gentile, religious and secular, rulers and common people--rejects Jesus, one person sees what no one else, not even Jesus’ closest followers, sees. 

He sees how Jesus lives and dies. 

He hears the gentle, powerful Word and witness of Jesus and by it, the Holy Spirit creates within him faith in Jesus. He sees that Christ is the King, the King, Lord of heaven and earth. 

That one person who sees and hears is one of the evil-doers, one of the criminals. 

He confesses his sin as he tells the other criminal, “Don’t you fear God...since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41) You can’t have Jesus as your Lord and King if you refuse to first own your need of being saved from your sin. 

And then, this man convicted of a capital crime, turns to Jesus and confesses faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (verse 42)

Jesus is bloodied, beaten, battered, pierced, on the brink of death. He doesn't look like someone who could save anyone. He doesn't look like the kings or power-holders of this world. 

But even at this moment, the criminal sees that Jesus is His King: The Word, powered by the Holy Spirit, gives him saving faith in Jesus. He welcomes that Word that tells us--no matter how crazy or painful our lives get--that Jesus is “the Messiah [the Christ, the Anointed King], the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

Some who heard the exchange between the criminal and Jesus may have thought, “Everyone else is against Jesus and the only one who believes in Him is this thug. Some king!” But Jesus, the Word of God, had done His life-saving work in the criminal. The criminal clung to the truth that Saint Paul would later experience and write about, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9)

The criminal’s faith in Jesus is rewarded instantly. After his confession of faith, Jesus tells Him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (verse 43) In Jewish thought, Paradise was a garden, like Eden, where God’s people, the subjects of Christ the King, went before their resurrections. And even now, in this moment and in all the moments of this life, as we receive Jesus in faith, we are part of His eternal kingdom. As we confess our faith in Him, Jesus says as He did that day in the house of the repentant sinner Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man [this woman, this child], too, is a son [is a daughter] of Abraham,” a child of God’s promise that “the righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)

In John 3:31, the apostle writes: “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.” Jesus, the One Who comes from heaven is above all. He is Christ the King, the One Who destroys the power of sin, death, and the devil over our lives

We can see this is true in how He lived, how He died, how He rose, and how, even today, He comes to us in Word and Sacrament and the life of His Church

Turn to Him when He calls you to repentance. Turn to Him when He calls you to faith. Each time you turn to Him, you will live as His subject, His child, His chosen, His friend, now and forever. Amen

*The Lutheran Study Bible

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]