Saturday, March 04, 2023

Bearing Fruit (Part 1, Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out Lenten Series)

[Below is this past Wednesday's first midweek Lenten service for 2023 from Living Water Lutheran Church, along with the text of the message. God bless you.]

John 15:1-8

A few years ago, we rewrote the constitution and bylaws of the congregation. After prayerful consideration, we decided we didn’t need to create a new mission statement for Living Water.

Jesus’ mission for His Church, His great commission, appears explicitly in all four gospels and in the book of Acts. The most famous of these appearances occurs in Matthew 28:19-20. There, the crucified and risen Jesus, just before ascending into heaven, tells the Church: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

We adopted these verses as the mission statement of Living Water Lutheran Church.

Distilling Jesus’ commission even further, we can say that the mission of this congregation and every Christian is to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Anything we do as a church that doesn’t reflect or advance this single mission is a waste of time and a waste of life on this earth.

As a church and as individual members of this church, our call–our mission–is to be disciples and to make disciples. Period.

Over time, we’ve identified a pathway, which we believe to be Biblical by which this happens. While and after God reaches down to us in Jesus Christ through His Word and His Sacraments, disciples reach up in worship and prayer, reach in to worship together as a church body and to live in relationships of mutual support and accountability, and reach out to our neighbors with the love and good news of Jesus. Later in this series, we’ll talk about each of these components in detail.

But tonight, I want to talk with you about two questions.

The first is what is a disciple?

The second is what does the life of a disciple look like?

A disciple, quite simply, is a sinner who has been found by God and saved by the grace God gives through the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

It is God’s Word about Jesus, whether proclaimed to us in Word or through the visible Word of the Sacraments–Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, that make us disciples. Those are the three methods God uses to make disciples.

Nobody ever really decides to follow Jesus.

Jesus tells His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16)

This means that Jesus’ choice is to save anyone who will turn to Him in repentance and faith at the prompting of God’s Word.

John the Baptizer had evidently heard the Word about Jesus while still in his mother’s womb and so, leapt for joy inside his mother when he heard the greeting of Mary, then bearing Jesus in her womb. (Luke 1:41)

Others may not come to faith as quickly as that. They’re more resistant to Christ’s Gospel. The thief on the cross, for example, finally received the gift faith, of discipleship, as he and Christ were being executed. He prayed, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

God’s Word assures us that we become Christ’s disciples when we are baptized. Even though John and the thief believed without being baptized, in Baptism, God’s Word connected with the water comes to us and we are crucified and raised with Christ. We are saved, made Christ’s disciples.

The apostle Peter said that the worldwide flood that happened during the time of Noah was a bitty symbol of the big thing that happens in Christian baptism: “baptism…now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21)

The disciple then is that person who, because God’s Word has been given to them, is able to confess Jesus as Lord.

“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ,” Romans 10:17 tells us.

And we’re told elsewhere in the Bible, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’  except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Discipleship, everlasting life with God through Jesus, is a gift for which we can take no credit.

Now, to address the second question I mentioned earlier–What does the life of a disciple look like?--I want to go back to why Jesus chooses to make those who believe in Him His disciples.

You see, Jesus doesn’t just save us from sin and death for our own sakes. He has bigger plans than that for His disciples. God doesn’t bring us into some exclusive club to ignore the world around us!

In that passage from John’s gospel I mentioned a moment ago, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you [and then Jesus says] so that you might go and bear fruit” (John 15:16) 

Not only did Jesus die on the cross and rise from the dead to save us from sin, death, condemnation, and hell, He also did that so that our lives, transformed by His love, forgiveness, and grace, would bear fruit, would tell the world about Jesus, God the Son!

Now, some Christians hear this and think it means they need to get busy. People like this second-guess their salvation, wondering whether they’re good enough for God and whether by their perceived failure to bear fruit, they ever had Jesus’ salvation or not. They’ll ask, “If I’m a Christian, why am I tempted? Why do I sin? Why do I have doubts? Why do I forget about the needs of others? Why don’t I witness to others about Jesus?” These thoughts come to us because though we are saints, we’re also still sinners. But the more important question for us is to Whom do we turn when assailed by doubt or temptation, when we have sinned, when we fail bear fruit? We turn to the One Who gives new life to us in the first place: Jesus Christ!

When he was dying, Fred Rogers, famously known as Misterrogers and an ordained Presbyterian minister, asked his wife whether she thought he was one of God’s lambs. Rogers questioned his eternal salvation because he thought he maybe hadn’t borne enough good fruit as a Christian. He worried about his good works.

But, friends, hear me on this: The same Savior who saves and justifies you by grace through faith in Christ also produces the fruit of holiness and growth in Christ within you. That’s not your job.

Your call is to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith each day, remaining open to where Christ leads you both within the Church and beyond the Church, and to know that God–and God alone–will cause you to bear fruit, even–and I might say, especially–when you don’t know about it! If you’re doing a thing and wondering, “Am I bearing good fruit for Christ?” you probably aren’t completely. According to Ephesians 2, whatever good works we do as disciples won’t be what we’ve planned, but “which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

When I was a child, I couldn’t feel my body growing, my voice changing, or the zits growing. My growth and change were beyond my capacity to decide on, control, or influence. I just kept coming to the dinner table where mom and dad prepared dinners to fuel my growth and the growth happened.

Your growth as a disciple of Jesus is all about what God does in you as you show up each day to receive His Word, worship with God’s people, receive the Sacraments. You just “come and get it” and the growth will happen.

You won’t sense growth happening.

You won’t see the fruit you’re bearing.

But it will be happening.

God uses people who gladly hear and receive His Word to be and make disciples.

A few years ago, we identified the process by which God makes and then uses people to be and to make disciples. We said discipleship begins with knowing Jesus Christ as our God, Savior, and Friend. It continues with growing in Christ. This is what God does to us and in us as we turn to Him through Jesus in daily repentance and faith. Then comes showing Christ. Knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, being daily fortified by His Word, gives us the comfort and the courage to tell others to “Come and see our Savior Jesus. Come and see the One Who knows all about me and loves me anyway.”

Knowing Christ.

Growing in Christ.

Showing Christ.

This is what God does in us so that we can be and make disciples. This is foundational for our journey this Lenten season.

The seed of God’s Word is planted in us. And it is that Word that makes us disciples and in turn, causes us to grow in faith that we might, in turn, make others Christ’s disciples. Amen

Monday, February 27, 2023

The God Who Never Forgets You

[Below you'll find both live stream videos of yesterday's Sunday worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio and the text of the prepared message.]

Matthew 4:1-11

Years ago, a man shared with a group of us what his dad told him every time he borrowed the car keys when he was a teenager. His dad said: “Remember who you are.”

Those seem like wise words to me because it’s so easy in the daily challenges of life to forget who we are and who we’re meant to be and to become someone else.

The Word of God teaches that we all have a call, a vocation. For the Christian, our vocation has less to do with our jobs than with who we are and who we are called by God to be, whatever our jobs or stations in life.

The call we all have as disciples of Jesus Christ is given to us at the moment of our baptisms when, after we are washed in the water connected to God’s Word and God’s promise, Christ’s cross is marked on our foreheads, and we are given our vocation, our identity, “child of God.” “Mark James,” the pastor said at my baptism, “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Pastors said similar things when you were baptized, whenever you were baptized.

As Christians, our vocation, our call, is to be God’s children, daily turning to the One Who has saved us in repentance and faith and through our faith in Jesus, acting as God’s light in a dark world.

We Christians aren’t the first God called children or sons of God. Moses once told Egypt’s king, Pharaoh: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Israel is my firstborn son,  and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.’” (Exodus 4:22-23)

History shows though that Israel failed in its calling as God’s son. The people of Israel constantly forgot who they were. They chased after false gods, temporary pleasures, worldly power. They became diverted from their mission as God’s children to be God’s light to the nations.

Our first lesson for this morning shows us that it was always God’s intention to send a Messiah into the world in order to save the human race and the universe our sin has impacted. God told the serpent–the devil, “...I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Jesus, the Messiah, was to fulfill the call that Israel--and no one else among we sinful human beings--ever could fulfill: the call of being the perfectly obedient Son of God, Who by going to the cross as God the Father willed, would crush the power of Satan over all of us.

Our gospel lesson for today starts right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. There, “a voice from heaven said of Jesus, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:17) Jesus was given His call to be the obedient Son of God. Abruptly, Matthew 4:1 then tells us, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  

Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, but He is also a human being, though a sinless one, Who did not inherit the condition of sin we all have inherited from Adam and Eve. Jesus had to take on our humanity, becoming the perfect human sacrifice for our sins, paying the debt we owe for failing in our call to be children of God. We sinful human beings don’t want God to have authority over us. But Jesus, as the Son of God, lives under the authority of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

So the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of Jesus being tempted by the devil. Like ancient Israel, who God had called His son, Jesus, just proclaimed God’s Son at the Jordan, goes into the wilderness. In Jesus’ forty days, He was tempted in the same ways that ancient Israel was tempted. But with a different result: Jesus resists every temptation, fulfilling His call as the Son of God.

Jesus is tempted in three ways by the devil. 

Knowing that Jesus is hungry, the devil tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus cites words from Deuteronomy: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

Next, the devil tells Jesus that He should throw Himself from the top of the Temple in Jerusalem to show people how the Father takes care of Him. Jesus refuses, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7) 

Finally, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says that Jesus can have them all without suffering, scorn, rejection, cross, death, or grave, if Jesus will just worship him. “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:10) Although the devil continued to try luring Jesus away from His call as our Savior, and still tempts people today, the devil knew at that moment that the jig was up. Jesus defeated the devil in the wilderness and would finally, definitively defeat Him at the cross by obediently remembering Who He was and that His call was and is to save us.

We often read this account and think of it as a how-to guide: “how to evade temptation by knowing God’s Word.” I've even preached on this lesson that way.

Being steeped in God’s Word, as Jesus was, will help us to avoid the temptation to individual sins: adultery, cursing, thievery, gluttony, covetousness, murder, idolatry, not worshiping with God’s people, or lying.

But if we think that’s why the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, we miss the point. In Jesus' temptations, God is not telling us to so much remember who we are, but to remember Who Jesus is.

You see, if Jesus came into this world only to be a good example for us, He could have skipped the cross. The temptation to sin and sin itself isn’t something that we can manage by following “three steps to holy living.” Jesus isn’t a self-help guru. To think so underestimates both how helpless and hopeless we are in the face of both our sin and our temptation. It ignores how deadly, how eternally fatal, sin is! The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” and we are born in infinite debt to God for our sin.

People who think, after reading the account of Jesus’ temptations, that they’re prepared to face off against the temptations of the devil, the world, and their (our) sinful selves are sitting ducks, bound for condemnation and hell no matter how firm their resolutions to walk away from temptation and sin.

We dare not face off against temptation in our own power!

Even if your intentions are good, the devil will drag you down to hell with him.

So will the sinful world.

So will your sinful, good-intentioned self.

The apostle Peter reminds us, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

Sin is so deadly that it required a Savior facing our temptations and living in total sinless righteousness to die on a cross to set us free from its power to eternally separate us from God. We can only resist the temptation to sin and we can only know that our sins–the sins we commit every day because we are human–are forgiven as we turn repeatedly to Jesus.

Jesus turned back the devil in the wilderness and at the cross by remembering Who He was--He remembered His call, so that He could save you from the sins we all commit that distort us into becoming something other than what He died and rose to make us, children of God.

So, when we are tempted, we can take refuge in the Savior Who renders the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful selves powerless over us!

Jesus remembered that He was the Son of God for you. He willingly became one of us, bore the rejection of the world, flogging, hatred, condemnation, and crucifixion because He never forgot you.

He never forgot that you need to be saved from sin, death, and the grave.

He always remembered His vocation.

In Jesus, the preacher of the New Testament book of Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) 

The Savior Who went to the wilderness and the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, always remembers you.

It’s in Him and Him alone that we find forgiveness and the grace to be who we could never be by our own willpower or pious resolutions: children of God.

Throughout this Lenten season and each day of life, friends turn to Jesus.

He will never forget nor leave defenseless in the face of sin and death those who turn to Him in trust. Amen

Law and Gospel, Part 3