Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Call to Reach Out (Part 5, Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out Lenten Series)

[This was shared during Wednesday night's midweek Lenten devotional worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Matthew 28:19-20

We come this evening to the last installment of our Lenten series, “Reach up. Reach in. Reach out.”

We consider what some see as the most difficult and distasteful aspect of the Christian life: reaching out to others with the gospel–the good news–that, in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, God has broken human imprisonment to sin and death and opened eternity to all people.

As people who have been gifted with saving faith in Jesus through the Word and the Sacraments, our call is to give away that gift to all people.

In doing so, we echo Jesus’ words at the beginning of His ministry: “Repent [that is, turn away from sin and death] and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) 

Of course, the call to reach out is in Jesus’ great commission. As mentioned during our first midweek gathering this year, Jesus is cited as giving the great commission in five different places in the New Testament.

One of those places, Matthew 28:19-20, is the mission statement of Living Water Lutheran Church: “Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

We can see both God’s Law and God’s Gospel in Jesus’ words here

The Law here in the great commission is: “Church, I command you to make disciples of all peoples.”

As is always true of God’s Law, what Jesus commands here is impossible for us.

Reaching out to others to give them the free gift of God’s grace in Christ is foreign to our sinful natures. The first thing we want to do when we get a gift is hoard it, keeping it to ourselves. This was why God had to warn the ancient Israelites to not take more manna than they needed from day to day because the excess would simply rot and be worthless to them.

Besides, as we’ll see, Jesus doesn’t expect us to reach out or make disciples in our power, as though we could say, “We’re going to do it” and actually do it. Jesus, after all, says, “I will build My Church.” (Matthew 16:18)

We can’t make disciples, bring people to faith in Jesus Christ. Only God can do that.

It is only the Holy Spirit, working through the Word of God–heard, read, or received in the Sacraments–Who creates faith in Jesus and “the communion of saints.”

But God has always used His people to bring His saving Word to others. In fact, when God Himself brought the good news into our world, He did so as a sinless Man Who died on a cross for us and rose from the dead for us. God likes using human beings to touch other human beings.

And so, as is His penchant, there is also a Gospel Word–a word of undeserved promise, undeserved grace–in the great commission. After telling us to make disciples and knowing that we couldn’t possibly do that on our own, Jesus graces us by saying, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Think of what Jesus is saying here!

We don’t have to wait until we die to know that He is by our sides. That in itself is a great comfort when we face the challenges of this life.

I can’t tell you how many times in the past forty-plus years of being involved in ministry how often people have told me of being comforted by the fact that there in the hospital, there in the intensive care unit, there in the funeral home, Jesus was beside them!

What have we done to deserve such a promise from the Lord of heaven and earth?


Absolutely nothing.

Jesus has done it all for us!

And He's' promised us life beyond the grave besides!

Our call is simply to daily turn from sin–repent–and trust in Him for the forgiveness of our sins and everlasting life with God. And when turning to Jesus gets too hard, we need to soak up the Word, because it is the Word that will turn us to Him.

So, how does the great commission get accomplished? I mean it seems like a monumental thing.

It must have felt that way to the first apostles when Jesus gave them the great commission. Imagine it! Jesus tells these eleven men, who don’t have exactly a stellar track record in the first place, that they’re going to carry His Gospel Word to the whole world. They were to make disciples of all nations.

So how does this impossible mission get accomplished?

The Savior Who gives us eternity and promises to be with us always works through us. That’s the plan and there’s no plan  B.

He speaks through us.

He serves through us.

He does this in the lives of imperfect people who heed His call, given in Luke 9:23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

The God we know in Jesus saves, sanctifies, and sends those who daily turn to Him in repentance and faith and are then assured by His Word, “For Jesus’ sake, all your sins are forgiven and you belong to Me forever! And for Jesus’ sake, you belong to God now and forever!”

Many Christians refuse to even consider reaching out to others, even when it comes things like inviting them to “pre-evangelism” events like Toddler Time or pickleball. They’re also wary about engaging in kindness outreaches or asking their friends and acquaintances to join them for Bible studies or even worship.

Why? They fear rejection.

But God’s Word says: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

Rejection hurts; but nothing is eternally fatal to the person who trusts in Jesus Christ!

You may remember the story I’ve shared before about South African bishop Desmond Tutu. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid in his country. That work also won him constant death threats. He was asked why, in light of those threats, he continued to work against injustice. He said he couldn’t help it: as a Christian, his blood boiled against injustice. “Besides,” he said, “death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.” We need not fear rejection.

Some Christians think they don’t know enough to share Christ and the Gospel with others.

But did you notice the story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s well that we read a few Sundays ago?

The woman thought maybe Jesus could be the Messiah and went back into the village to invite others to meet Jesus. There is no indication that between the time she left the well and went into the village that she’d gotten a Master of Divinity degree. She didn’t receive any evangelistic training.

After encountering Jesus and His Word, the townspeople later told the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)

All it took was a woman who only knew what she knew, giving her tentative conclusions about Jesus to the people of Sychar, inviting them to hear the Word for themselves.

To reach out to others with the Gospel, you don’t need to know everything; you only need to point others to Jesus.

There is no such thing as failure or embarrassment for the Christian who shares Christ and His Gospel with people they know or care about.

Reaching out, evangelizing, is, as someone has said, nothing more than, “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”

Jesus is the bread of life none of us can earn but all of us can freely receive.

Every person here tonight knows how important Christ is for them in their daily lives.

How He has helped them in hard times.

How His promises to sustain us through grief always come through.

How He fills us with peace through His gracious love.

We don’t want anyone we know to go through this life or to face eternity without Jesus by their sides!

That’s why, even though I pray every day that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will be brought to an end and that Putin will be brought to justice, I also pray that he will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Christ even died for him. Christ even wants him in the fold.

The New Testament book of Acts tells the history of the first Christians, almost all of them Jews, and how the risen and ascended Jesus used them to spread the Gospel and build His Church among both Jews and Gentiles.

Not long after the first Christian Pentecost, Peter and John were hauled before the religious authorities at the temple and told to never again speak or teach in the name of Jesus.

This was not just advice. It was these same authorities who had, not long before, lobbied Pilate to have Jesus crucified.

But Peter, who once denied knowing Jesus three times, is now filled with the Holy Spirit Who had come to believers as Jesus promised, joins John in telling the authorities: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Peter and John knew that nothing could separate them from the God Who had justified them, saved them, by His grace through faith in Christ Jesus.

That’s why, after the authorities released them and they returned to the fellowship of the Church, the whole Church prayed together, “Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29) They prayed for boldness to speak the name of Jesus in the face of threats.

Friends, at your Baptism, you received the same Holy Spirit Who gave Peter and the first disciples boldness to share Jesus and His Gospel.

May we pray for boldness to tell others about Jesus too, knowing the Holy Spirit can do that through us as certainly as He helped the first Christians to be Christ’s witnesses!

One prayer you might offer to God each day is, “Father, in Jesus’ name, push my fear and insecurities aside and unleash the Spirit to speak the good news of Jesus to someone today.”

Jesus has already saved you from sin and death and condemnation. It is an accomplished fact. May you live in the peace and assurance that gives, and so, as Peter says elsewhere, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)

As long as you live on this earth, the Holy Spirit will empower you to reach out with the good news of Jesus whenever and wherever God leads you. Jesus has promised that and you can believe it. Amen

Come Out of Your Tomb!

[Below you'll find live stream video of the Sunday worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, from this past Sunday, along with the text of the message shared.]

John 11:1-45
There are two verses I want to focus on as we encounter Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson.

The first gives us the words of Martha after Jesus has ordered that the stone covering the entrance to her brother Lazarus’s tomb be removed. Martha says, “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor…” (John 11:39)

The second tells us the words of Jesus once the stone of Lazarus’ tomb is rolled away: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43)

In that first verse, after four days in the tomb, the body of Lazarus stunk. His corpse was rotting. To this world, he was beyond helping, incommunicado, dead as the proverbial doornail.

In the second one, Jesus, the Word of God, the very Word God Who spoke to chaos back in Genesis in order to bring the life of the universe into being–this Jesus, God the Son–called out to Lazarus who had died to this world, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus emerged from the tomb, alive and whole.

Friends, these two verses–”he stinks” and “Lazarus, come out”–speak God’s Law and God’s Gospel to us.

How had Lazarus died? We don’t know the specific circumstances of Lazarus’ illness and death.

But we do know that the cause of all human suffering and death is sin.

That doesn’t mean that Lazarus had committed sins and God punished Lazarus with death.

It does mean that God originally created us righteous, sinless, and filled with eternal life from God. But Adam and Eve, our first parents, rebelled against God’s good will for them and we have inherited the condition of sin, the condition of alienation from God and others, of alienation from the life God means for us to live.

As the Bible explains elsewhere, “...sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people…” (Romans 5:12) Lazarus, who we’re told Jesus loved…Lazarus, the brother of two sisters we’re told Jesus also loved, just like Jesus loves you and me…Lazarus died.

That’s what happens to human beings. We die to life in this world.

Believers and unbelievers.

Repentant and unrepentant.

The perfect Law of God commands perfect righteousness of us and none of us is perfectly righteous. And so we die. “The wages of sin is death…: (Romans 6:23)

What Jesus knows before He goes to Bethany is that from the perspective of this dying and fallen world, Lazarus was dead. But, speaking from the perspective of heaven, He tells the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” (John 11:11)

This is exactly how the apostle Paul speaks of those who have died believing in Christ. In about 55 AD, he tells the Christians in Corinth of the more than 500 witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, “most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:6)

You see, when the Word of God does its work in you, both in the Law that convicts you of your sin and in the Gospel that sets you free from sin and its death sentence, you already have died.

For most Christians, deaths happens at our baptisms. As Paul says elsewhere in the Bible: “...don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him 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 6:3-4)

Every time the Word of God comes to a person in Holy Baptism, a death and resurrection happen, new life occurs as the baptized is born again of water and the Spirit. (John 3:3)

Every time an unbaptized person beyond infancy or childhood encounters the Word of God that condemns their sin, drives them to repentance, and gives them faith in Jesus Christ, death and resurrection happen. This is what happened to the thief crucified alongside Christ and to the Ethiopian eunuch who heard the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the layperson Philip.

People may walk away from the covenant of their baptism. People who have made Spirit-prompted confessions of faith in Christ may abandon Christ. We have no free will when it comes to the Gospel. Our default position as descendants of Adam is to not turn to Christ.

The Word must come to us and come to us again and again so that Christ can daily free us from our natural sinful inclination to walk away from God.

That’s why we need to hear and be given the Gospel Word–in words and in the Sacraments–daily.

We need to be reminded that having died already, we need not die again.

We can simply fall asleep in the Lord, awaiting that day will call all those who have trusted in Him from our graves and call us to life in the new heaven and the new earth!

And so, Jesus knew, as He headed for Bethany, that Lazarus, although dead to the world, his body beginning to decompose, was asleep in the Lord.

Jesus’ Word would do what no human word, no human effort, no human decision, could do. Jesus was going to wake Lazarus and call His friend from the tomb! “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43)

Before doing that, Jesus tells Martha, who thinks of resurrection as something that will only happen on some distant someday, “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.” “I am the resurrection right now,” Jesus is telling Martha. “I give life now. By the power of My saving Word.” Then, Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

That question is for us as well. “Do we believe this death-conquering Gospel?”

Friends, I know that many of you are here this morning dealing with the harsh realities of this life.

You have family members who are sick.

You have your own illnesses.

Some of you may be facing tough stuff you wish would go away: decisions, relational discords, hopelessness.

You may feel like you’re bottled up in some tomb, a prisoner to temptation, sin, death, other people’s expectations, the judgment of God’s holy law.

Today, Jesus calls to you from whatever dark place you may feel yourself to be, alone, separated from God, dead, and He says, “Come out of your tomb! Live knowing your sins are forgiven. Live, knowing that I have taken all your sins onto myself so that the tomb cannot hold you any more than it held Me. Live by grace through faith in Me. Live with Me, now and forever.”

This is Christ’s saving Word to you today.

It’s a Word that spells the death of death for all who believe.

Folks, Jesus Christ has already died and risen for you.

He has already called you from death and to life.

That’s the Gospel Word for you.

And you can trust in that Word always.