Wednesday, August 31, 2022

For Grieving Believers: Two Promises from Jesus

[This message was shared during the funeral of a Living Water Lutheran Church saint yesterday morning.]

In the Name of God the Father, and God the Son, Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

Lou, you should know that you, your daughters and sons-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, are in the prayers of many people today. Donna was a person cherished by many, not least by those of her Living Water Lutheran Church family, along with many from Epiphany.

Donna was a special person, devoted to her husband and family, committed to helping others, as she did for years through the Gabbards’ involvement in Aid Association for Lutherans.

I always found Donna to be a kind and considerate person, quick to smile and quick to laugh, and always available to participate or help. Donna will be missed!

Lou, I want you to know, how inspiring you have been for your family and others, as you have cared for Donna these past few years By the power of the Holy Spirit, you have faithfully kept your vows to God and to Donna, loving and serving Donna in a trying season. I know you have been assisted in doing this by your family and that you’re grateful for them and their help. But believe me, they’re grateful for the love you gave to Donna every day of your married life!

At the start of a beautiful section of First Thessalonians, the apostle Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope…” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) 

Paul wrote to the Christians in first-century Thessalonica, a city on the Aegean Sea, who, thinking that Jesus should have returned by then, had become concerned about the fate of fellow Christians who had already died. Paul wanted to reassure them that the Savior Who had died for the world’s sins and had risen to open up eternity to all who believe in Him, was good for His promises to come back to the world to judge the living and the dead and to usher His kingdom fully into being. 

He also wanted them to know that those who died trusting in Jesus Christ as their Lord and God were, even then, in God’s care. 

No one who trusts in Jesus is ever lost to God

Paul wanted to underscore the promise that Jesus had made to us all in a conversation with Martha, the grieving sister of His friend Lazarus: “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.” (John 11:25-26) This is the promise to which Lou referred during one of my visits to hospice last week when I asked him how he was doing. Of Donna, he said, “I’m glad she’s a Christian!”

Christians, like others, of course, grieve the loss of loved ones, even of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ. 

It would be unnatural for us not to grieve those we have loved and who have loved us. 

It would be strange not to grieve for a mother who has nurtured her children, a friend who has shared life’s burdens, and a fellow disciple who believed in Jesus. 

We feel grief for those we love even when we know their passing brings them relief from this world’s pain and brings us an end to our agonies for them. 

But, as Paul says, the Christian need not grieve like those who don’t believe in Jesus. Those without faith, Paul says, are people “who have no hope.”

The Christian has an eternity of hope! We know that Jesus Christ, Who died for our sins and sent His Holy Spirit to witness for the Gospel in the Word and the Sacraments to give us saving faith in Jesus, will welcome believers in Him into His loving arms when we pass from this life

We know too, that we will be reunited with all the saints, like Donna, who have trusted in Christ in this life. What a reunion that will be, living in the presence of God: tears dried, bodies made new and whole, death eternally destroyed!

Until that happy day, we will, in this world, have grief. We will have challenges and setbacks. 

But, even now, the joy of heaven invades the lives of those who take Jesus at His Word when He invites us to daily take up our crosses, that is, repent for sin, and follow Him, meaning trust in Him

Jesus has told His Church and all who are part of it, “...I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) 

God inspired the apostle Paul to talk about this too, as He does in our second lesson for this morning. “I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) 

Nothing can separate believers from Jesus!

So, once more today, Lou and family, the crucified and risen Jesus gives you two incredible and undeserved promises, the power and credibility of which are certified by His death and His resurrection.

First, He promises that death is not the final word over the lives of those who, like Donna, believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus, Who triumphed over sin and death, including your sin and my sin, your death, and my death, can be trusted when He tells us, “For God so loved the world [God so loved Donna and you and me] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) 

The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, tell us repeatedly that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:17) Saved by grace through faith from sin, death, and futility! Jesus is the certain sign that we can bet our entire lives on that incredible promise!

Second, Jesus promises to be with us in this life, no matter what. This promise too is given in both Testaments. In Deuteronomy and Hebrews, God’s promise is shouted forth: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5; Deuteronomy 31:6) Again, the Savior Who bore our death on the cross and Who gives His righteousness to all who repent and believe, tells us that we can trust this promise for our daily lives, even today, even in the midst of grief.

Last week at the hospice facility, we read Psalm 46, the words of which inspired the lyrics of Martin Luther’s best-loved hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. It begins: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Then, God breaks in to say, “Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10)

These words are for you, Lou, and for your family. 

Even in your grief, you can rest easy, you can be still, in the strong arms of the God you know in Jesus. You can be still, knowing that He is God and, because of the Word-borne, Holy Spirit-given faith in Jesus that was Donna’s and is yours, you can know for a certainty that God has Donna and you and all who believe, in His strong, loving hands, now and forever. Amen


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Freed to Love As We've Been Loved

[Below you'll find the message prepared for worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on Sunday, August 28.]

In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 14:1-14, Jesus tells us: “...all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Jesus here teaches us an important truth: The Gospel given to us in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, achieves what God’s Law cannot. And humility receives what pride cannot. Jesus is going to tell us this three times over in our lesson. Let’s pay attention to His words.

The lesson begins: “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.” (Luke 14:1) It’s important to note that the wedding feast is happening on a Sabbath day. Our translation says that it takes place at the house of a “prominent” Pharisee. The Greek in which Luke, like the other New Testament writers composed his Gospel, says that the owner of the house was an ἀρχόντων (archonton), a ruler of the Jews. This guy was a leading Pharisee. Pharisaism, you’ll recall, was a sect of Judaism that effectively taught people they could be right with God if they obeyed God’s Law. Jesus had already had run-ins with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. Now, every Pharisee in the room is watching Jesus closely, looking for Him to violate God’s Law, giving them a reason to seek Jesus’ execution.

Luke tells us that in front of Jesus was a man suffering from dropsy, an “abnormal swelling of his body.” Jesus asks the Pharisees and the teachers of religious law (the Scribes), “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” (Luke 14:3) We could rephrase Jesus’ question as, “Will God damn a person to hell for showing kindness to someone, praying for them, sharing the Gospel with them, feeding them a meal, on the Sabbath?” The answer should be obvious. Both the Old Testament and Jesus Himself summarized God’s Law as loving God completely and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is the point of the Ten Commandments, God’s basic moral law. It shows you how completely sinful we are at birth that God has to command us to love. And even when He does, we can’t in our own power love God completely or love others with the same commitment with which we love ourselves. With the apostle Paul, we’re bound to say, “...I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (Romans 7:18)

The Pharisees thought otherwise. They were sure they kept God’s Law scrupulously and just to be sure, had created more than 600 additional laws by which they were certain they proved themselves righteous and worthy of life with God. In the process, they pitted God’s Law (or their version of God’s Law) against God’s love. There are times in their previous confrontations with Jesus that they condemn Jesus for acting lovingly on the Sabbath. After Jesus poses His question today, the Pharisees and Scribes, “remained silent.” (Luke 14:4) So, Jesus heals the man of his dropsy, then confronts the Pharisees and Scribes again, asking them: “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” Now, only a monstrous parent or a stupid owner of livestock would wait until after the Sabbath to rescue their child or their ox. But now, Luke says, the Pharisees “...had nothing to say.” (Luke 14:4)

Jesus, as God the Son, is the Lord of the Sabbath. He created the Sabbath not to provide an excuse the self-righteous can use for not loving God or neighbor one day a week. God gives us the Sabbath so that we can hear and learn His Word. You and I are born with a debt to God that we, in our own goodness, cannot repay. Jesus offered His sinless life on the cross to cancel the debt we owe to God for our sin and to give us everlasting life with God. He gives all this to us as a free gift we cannot earn. So, it’s OK to be compassionate on the Sabbath…or on any other day of the week. We don’t have to love God or neighbor to be saved from sin and death. Jesus has destroyed the power of sin to condemn us and separate us from God. In the Gospel, Jesus has set us free from sin and death–that’s the Gospel. With this gift then, He sets us free to live lives of love. Proud people, certain of their own goodness, can never be right with God or have life with Him. The humble, on the other hand, realize their salvation is entirely the work of God in Christ and, their pride broken, receive life from Him!

Now, the Pharisees and the Scribes aren’t the only ones who are watching in our lesson. Verse 7 tells us that Jesus is observing how everyone is seeking places of honor at the feast. Jesus tells His host and fellow guests not to push themselves forward like this. If someone higher on the ladder shows up, Jesus says, your host will be forced to tell you to take a seat at a lower spot. Instead, Jesus says, take a seat in the lowest place. Then the host may approach you and say, “Come on up to a higher place, a place of honor.”

Now, don’t misunderstand Jesus here. He isn’t establishing a new law. Jesus isn’t saying that we’ll earn better places at the heavenly banquet to which all His saints will go when they’ve been raised from the dead. Instead, Jesus is telling us to face facts, like the sinful tax collector in one of His parables. Remember, Jesus said, the tax collector entered the temple and didn’t dare come close to God, aware that he didn’t merit even being in the presence of God. Instead, from a place of lowliness, he cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) The humble know that, sinners though we are, it’s only through Jesus that we have a place in His kingdom. I don’t know about you, but knowing that I don’t deserve the forgiveness of my sins or everlasting life with God, I’m not going to be particular about the seating arrangements in heaven. Wherever Jesus puts me in His Kingdom, I won’t deserve it. I’ll just be grateful that He died and rose for someone like me! The psalmist writes, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” (Psalm 84:10)

Lastly, Jesus tells the Pharisees and Scribes that when they host a dinner, they shouldn’t invite people who can repay them. Instead, Jesus says, “...invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:14) Now, again, Jesus isn’t giving us some new law. He isn’t saying, “If you’ll invite the riff raff, the drug dealers, the thugs to your house, I’ll invite you into My kingdom.” Jesus is saying that because by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, we already have a place in the Kingdom of God, we don’t need to play the world’s games. The proud want to have an in with powerful, important people. The humble know that even the powerful and important of this world are mortals and sinners in need of God’s grace. This is why God’s Word tells us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save…Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” (Psalm 146:3, 5) When you know you have the favor of God, you needn’t seek the favor of the world’s kings, queens, bosses, big shots, or pop stars. Jesus gives us the confidence to love others without thinking of repayment because we know He has already loved us and given us an eternal place with Him!

The Gospel gives us what God’s Law cannot. And humility receives what pride cannot. A place in God’s kingdom doesn’t belong to those who self-consciously perform good religious works, who, in their heart of hearts, harbor the belief that their goodness and achievement make them worthy for life with God. A place in God’s kingdom belongs only to those who know with Saint Paul that, “ 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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Friends, our only boast is in Jesus. He is the One Who calls us to life with Him in His kingdom, the highest and best place anyone could be, no matter what the world may think of us. Jesus calls out to you again today, “Friend, move up to a better place,” the place where Jesus is our saving King and we are His people forever. Amen