Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Blessed Life

Below is the video of last Sunday's 11:00 AM worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Beneath that is text of the message shared then.]

Mark 5:1-12

In my younger years, when I read Matthew 5:1-12, today’s Gospel lesson, I completely misunderstood it. With each “Blessed...” that Jesus speaks, I thought He was saying things like, “You’ll be blessed if you’re a peacemaker” and “You’ll be blessed if you hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It seemed to me that in every line, Jesus was laying down the Law, giving me marching orders as a Christian. “If you want to be blessed,” I thought Jesus was telling me, “you’ll do these things, act in these ways, think like this.” I was wrong!

There are movements in the Church that continue to read these words of Jesus in this way. Some churches tell people that they will be saved and that they will be blessed if they ask Jesus into their hearts, if they decide to follow Jesus, if they decide to get baptized as a sign of their decision for Christ. Proponents of the “prosperity gospel” say people will be blessed, by which they mean people will have money, if they obey not only God’s laws, but others they throw in from their own misreading of the Bible. Some churches tell people they’ll be blessed with good health if they only believe enough.

But legalistic, performative religion that keeps telling us to be good or be better is not Christian faith! Romans 10:4 reminds us that, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” That means that Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, the new Adam, the first-born of the new human race, has perfectly fulfilled the demands of God’s Law, the Law you and I are incapable of keeping. Jesus offered His perfectly sinless, righteous life on the cross in payment for our sin so that when He rose from the dead, affirmed and approved by God the Father, He could give His righteousness to all who, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word and in the Sacraments, confess that, “Jesus is Lord!” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Jesus’ words in today’s lesson are not the words of a self-help guru telling us how to be blessed. They’re not new laws meant to make you get busy at becoming a better person or a better Christian.

Although we often call the words Jesus speaks here, “The Beatitudes,” there are many beatitudes strewn throughout the Old and New Testaments. A beatitude, quite simply, describes elements of living in God’s blessedness. A more useful synonym for the word blessed Jesus uses today, might be, one Lutheran pastor has suggested, saved. For example, “Saved are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This helps drive home the fact that in the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t giving us prescriptions for salvation or “the good life,” but descriptions of what life is like for people who trust in Him. “When you are saved by grace through faith in Me,” Jesus is telling us, “this is what life in the Kingdom of Heaven is like, even in this fallen world!”

Let’s consider today just two of the Beatitudes Jesus gives today and see how He describes the lives of those saved by His grace and not through their efforts to be good or better people. “Blessed,” Jesus says, as we’ve already mentioned, “are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? It means that when I look at myself, particularly in light of the perfect righteousness of God revealed in Jesus, I take no confidence in my righteousness. I see that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. To be “poor in spirit” is to be honest with God and myself. I’m open to the righteousness of God that we receive only as we daily repent and trust in Jesus and His righteousness. “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved,” we’re told in 2 Corinthians 10:18, “but the one whom the Lord commends.” It’s only the spiritually weak and impoverished who are filled with the strength and righteousness of Jesus. There is great freedom in this, friends! When we rely on Jesus’ righteousness and not our own, we don’t have to pretend to be anything but who we are: grateful children of God!

Think now of the final of Jesus’ beatitudes for us today: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) We’re fortunate to live in a country in which there is no official infringement on our freedom of religion. We can gather freely for worship and Bible studies. We can pray over our meals in restaurants. We can tell others about Jesus. We can serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.

But there are subtle forms of persecution. Believers are often shunned or pigeonholed by others because we believe in Jesus. We’re the objects of uninformed stereotyping. A few weeks ago, our daughter was talking with a woman who told her what a terrible person her father must be, “Don’t you know that all pastors are thieves?”

In describing life in His kingdom, Jesus says that Christians are to expect persecution of all kinds. He’s saying, “If you’re following Me, this is going to happen. If you’re persecuted for following Me, it means you’re on the right track. It means you’re drawing life from the right Lord and Savior.”

Christians should expect persecution. The apostle Peter told the churches in first-century Asia Minor, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) Persecution of different kinds is a byproduct of being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and darkness.

I was telling a member of Living Water the other night, some of what Ann and I experienced when we fought for the authority of God’s Word, the Bible, in a previous parish. A former pastor organized opposition. Area pastors, not even members of the congregation, came to meetings and impugned the integrity of members who were standing on God’s Word and told me, obliquely, that I was being arrogant. One night, a doped-up, drunk man plowed into both of our vehicles, totaling them both. While we waited for the police to show, the driver toted a pistol to my porch. In the midst of it all, I had a heart attack that should have killed me. If you follow Jesus, you will be persecuted by the devil and the world and sometimes, even the Church. But you will also be blessed, living in the presence of Jesus, assured that nothing can separate you from His love!

This must not lead us to self-righteousness or to closing ourselves off to the world though. Think of Jesus and how His life was blessed just as He describes blessedness in today’s lesson. He was poor in spirit; He completely depended on God the Father, never speaking a Word beyond what the Father gave Him to speak. (John 12:49) He was meek. “I am gentle and humble in heart,” He says in Matthew 11:29. Jesus hungered and thirsted only to do the will of the Father, even when He faced the brutality of the cross. He was merciful, praying God’s forgiveness for those who drove nails into His hands and feet and mocked Him. Jesus was pure in heart, keeping His eyes fixed on God through cross and empty tomb. Jesus is the peacemaker, who is the bridge between God and the fallen human race. He is the “one mediator between God and mankind…” (1 Timothy 2:5) Jesus was persecuted, enduring the rejection of Jews and Gentiles alike, so that He could win life with God for us all.

The point? Just this: The blessed life is the life saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And, as we turn to Him each day in repentance and faith, when we receive the Word of God that convicts us of our sin and convinces us of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ, when we trust that He makes us His child in Holy Baptism, and when we trust that He comes to us, body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, we are living in His kingdom. No matter what happens to us in this world, as we turn to Jesus, we are blessed--we are saved. Jesus’ life fills the lives of those who believe in Him and we are blessed. That’s what Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes. Amen

Living Today

[Below you'll find, first, the video of today's 11:00 AM worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. It's the modern service. We have a traditional service at 8:45 on Sunday mornings. Beneath the video is the text of the message for the day.]

Mark 13:1-13
The temple in Jerusalem of first-century Judea was impressive. It was made of more than 100-tons of stone. It was built to impress. That’s why the words of one of the disciples at the start of today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-13, are understandable. “Look, Teacher!” the unidentified disciple says to Jesus, “What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

But Jesus is unimpressed. That’s because Jesus knows not only that the temple is going to be destroyed in 70 AD, He also knows that He and His death on the cross are about to make the temple and the sacrifices that took place there, forever obsolete. After Jesus offers His body and blood on the cross, no sacrifice of animals or grains will ever again be needed. Instead, people will only be “​​made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10) So, Jesus hits the disciples with what they see as an alarming prophecy. “Do you see all these great buildings?” Jesus asks the disciple. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2) Jesus’ words stunned the disciples. So much so that later, four of them--Peter, John, James, and Andrew, the first four to be called by Jesus--approach Jesus with a question. “Tell us,” they say to Jesus, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4)

You’ve heard me say before that if we give Jesus an inch, He’ll take a mile. We may come to God the Father with prayer in Jesus’ name with nothing more than a bundle of confusion and half-baked, half-sinful desires. But because we come to God in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit will turn our jumbles into prayers for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will be done in the lives of the people for whom and in the circumstances about which we pray. “We do not know what we ought to pray for,” the apostle Paul says, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26) This is true of the disciples’ and others’ encounter with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. The disciples thought they needed to know how to live if the temple, the place where sacrifices were made, disappeared. Instead, Jesus knows that what we all need to know is how to live because, at His cross, He became the perfect, definitive sacrifice for our sin, and how we who trust in Jesus are to live until that day when we see Jesus face to face. Bishop Dan Selbo says that Jesus here tells us how to live today in light of tomorrow. And he said that there are five ways Jesus tells us to live in our lesson. I think he’s right.

First, Jesus tells us that we’re to be confident of His return. Jesus says elsewhere in Mark’s gospel that one day, “people will see the Son of Man [Jesus] coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” (Mark 13:26-27) Because we know that Jesus will return, we who trust in Him as our God and Savior can live confidently. Jesus has done everything necessary to destroy the power of sin and death over our lives. The future of the cosmos and our personal destinies are in His hands. And there’s nothing we can do or must do to be right with Him. We simply bring our sins and our trust to Him and He covers us in His victory over sin and death. We can look to Jesus’ return confident that by His Word and Sacraments and the faith in Christ they have created in us, we belong to God forever!

Second, Jesus says that we’re to be careful not to be led away from Christ. “Watch out that no one deceives you,” Jesus tells us. “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” (Mark 14:6) We’re to be wary of anyone or anything that leads us away from Jesus. If a legalistic Christian tells you that you have to observe certain days or eat certain foods to gain the freedom from sin and death Jesus has already earned for you at the cross, don’t listen to them! If what are called “antinomian” Christians tell you that it doesn’t matter what you do--that you can even sin unrepentantly--close your ears to their nonsense. If family members, spouses, friends, political leaders, celebrities, hobbies, fads, or obsessions are pulling you away from Christ, you need to be careful and turn back to Jesus. Jesus is the only One worthy to be followed. Be careful about who you listen to.

Third, Jesus says we’re to be cautious. There are religious kooks and crooks who will tell us they’ve figured out when Jesus is coming back. But Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13:7-8) “The sinful world is gonna be the sinful world,” Jesus is saying. The best way to ensure that we don’t become desperate or stupid in the face of false messages is to live in daily fellowship with the God we know in Jesus. Read God’s Word. Pray. Fellowship with and in accountability to Christ’s Church. Stand under Christ’s grace and authority alone. I have been astounded in recent years to see how much hope that people who call themselves Christians put in political leaders and political parties, left and right. But Psalm 146 tells us: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” (Psalm 146:3-5) Be cautious about signing on to causes or philosophies or candidates.

Fourth, Jesus says to construct our lives on things that last. The God we know in Jesus is the only sure foundation, not any human works. The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “ is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” A life that lasts, a life that endures through the chaos of this world and perseveres into eternity with God, is built on the God we know in Jesus Christ alone! Psalm 127:1 reminds us, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”

Fifth, Jesus tells us to commit each day to following Him. He warns  Christians that, “Everyone will hate you because of me.” But then He promises, “the one who stands firm to the end [in following Him] will be saved.” (Mark 13:13) And since the One making this promise has died for us and risen from the dead, we can trust that promise. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) During Advent, which starts on November 28, we’re asking all of our members to read a chapter a day of the Gospel of Luke in whatever English translation helps you best to hear God’s Word for you. Through His Word, God will help you to follow Jesus each day.

The world can throw all sorts of things at us. Jesus tells us to live today in light of the eternal tomorrow He gives to all who believe in Him: confident of His return; careful of not being led away from Jesus; cautious in discerning the words of those claiming to speak for Jesus; constructing our lives on Jesus alone; and committing each day to following Jesus. Jesus has told us, as you know well, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus is where grace, life, and truth are, no matter what’s going on in the world. When you build your life on Jesus even when the world is falling apart, when you endure in following Him, you will always be safe in God’s hands. Amen