Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, Part 26

Thoughts for May 30, 2023

"So [Jesus] said to his disciples, 'The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in. Pray to the owner of the harvest that he will send out workers to gather in his harvest.'” (Matthew 9:37-38, Good News Translation)

Here, Jesus tells us that the world is full of people who need to receive the Gospel Word about Him and are ready to do so. The problem, Jesus says, is that there aren't enough of His workers, His disciples, to get His Gospel to everyone who needs it. So, Jesus tells us to pray that God the Father, "the owner of the harvest," will send His people to share the good news of Jesus that, "...God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life." (John 3:16, Good News Translation)

Heavenly Father, raise up disciples, both laypeople and pastors, who will go into their everyday worlds and share the good news of Jesus with all people. Grant us an openness to Your Holy Spirit's call to be among the workers You send to gather disciples into Your eternal harvest. In Jesus' name. Amen

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Holy Spirit: Still on the Job!

[Below, you'll find the message presented at both worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, and live stream video of both services. Today is the Day of Pentecost, the third great festival of the Church Year.]

Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost already was a festival on the Jewish calendar long before the events described in today’s second lesson. That’s why there were Jews, both those born Jews and converts, from every part of the known world gathered in Jerusalem. It was a day of obligation, if you will, which every Jew would have expected to participate in at least once in their lives.

Pentecost had its roots as an agricultural celebration, celebrating the spring harvest. But for God’s people, the Jews, it was also a festival celebrating the giving of God’s Law at Mount Sinai.

God’s people loved God’s Law. “Oh, how I love your law!,” Psalm 119 says,  “I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.” (Psalm 119:97-98)

But for all the love God’s people had for the Law, they were no more successful at obeying it than you and I are. Paul, the Jewish Christian apostle, speaks not only for himself but also for God’s ancient people and for you and me (and the whole world) when he writes, “...in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:22-23) Whenever we resolve to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we fail. Such love is foreign to our sinful nature. If we are to love God and love others as God commands us to do, that love must come from outside of ourselves.

The people gathered in Jerusalem had no idea what they were in for on that Pentecost Day! They were just there to be outwardly obedient to God’s Law.

The Jews gathered in Jerusalem didn’t know it even though nine hundred years before, God had foretold it through the prophet Joel. God said that when Jesus, the sinless Savior, paid for our sin with His life, the sun would “be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…” (Joel 2:31) (Sounds like Good Friday to me.) But at this, God would pour out His Holy Spirit in ways not seen since the Spirit moved over the waters to create the universe in Genesis. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28) This describes what happened to the fearful disciples of Jesus in that upper room on the first Christian Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was poured on them, just as He is poured on you and me in the waters of Holy Baptism.

The 120 disciples of Jesus also didn’t know what they were in for as they gathered in the upper room either. This was true even though Jesus had told them what was going to happen. Just before He was arrested, He had said, “...it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) And He also told them why this was so. “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he’ll expose the error of the godless world’s view of sin, righteousness, and judgment: He’ll show them that their refusal to believe in me is their basic sin; that righteousness comes from above, where I am with the Father, out of their sight and control; that judgment takes place as the ruler of this godless world [the devil] is brought to trial and convicted.” (John 16:8-11, The Message]

Jesus had told the disciples He would send the Holy Spirit so that they could share the Gospel, the good news, with all the world. The Holy Spirit would give Christ’s Church the power to tell and to share the message that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” (John 3:36) By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church would be given the ability to tell the world that, “In Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven and you are free to trust in that truth!”

Because of this Holy Spirit, Jesus says elsewhere, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Think of that, friends! Jesus says that with Him back in heaven at the right hand of God, after He has sent His Church the Holy Spirit, His Church–you and I–will do greater things than He had done in an earthly ministry in which He proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, (Luke 4:18), and everlasting life for all who are turned from sin and trust in Him. (John 3:16; Mark 1:15)

On the first Christian Pentecost, we see this happen. The Holy Spirit descended on those 120 disciples, giving them the power to speak plainly about the mighty works of God, including the mightiest of all, when God the Son took on human life, died on the cross to set sinners free from death and condemnation, and rose again to open eternity to all who trust in Him.

The Jerusalem crowd is stunned! They hear the sound of a violent wind from heaven, then hear these Galieans speaking to them in their own native languages about Jesus. It’s bewildering!

But Peter–of all people, Peter, impulsive, foot-in-the-mouth, brave-talking-but-not-always-so-brave-living Peter–explains everything. (If that doesn’t prove the power of the Holy Spirit, nothing does!) Peter recalls what Joel had said and realized that, despite his imperfection and sin, the Holy Spirit had come to him and the other disciples so that they could proclaim new life for all who turn to Jesus.

By the power of the Spirit, Peter knew what he needed to say next: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21)

Later, speaking in the passive voice about something only God could do to people who hear God’s Word coming from a preacher’s mouth, Peter would tell the crowd, “Be repented and baptized,” that is, “By, the Word of promise from God, be turned to Christ and receive new life in His name.” (Acts 2:38)

On that first Christian Pentecost, God used the disciples of Jesus speaking His Gospel Word to do greater things than Jesus had ever done: 3000 people were baptized into the Kingdom of God!

So, what about today? Is the Holy Spirit still open for business today?

Well, Christianity is the fastest growing religion by conversions in the world today. In places like Ethiopia and South Sudan, in underground churches in China and North Korea, and other places where people haven’t grown self-satisfied or self-righteous or jaded, as we see among people in North America and Europe, the Church is growing at a Pentecost Sunday-rate.

But it’s not just in places like these that the Holy Spirit is at work today. This past Thursday night, I was honored and happy to accompany Jim Lopez and Warren Mansfield to one of the monthly dinners of Whole Truth Ministries. Whole Truth helps those recovering from addictions to get new starts in life. If you ever want confirmation that the Holy Spirit is active and bringing people to new life in Christ, go to one of these dinners. The hunger of those people for Jesus is at least as big as their hunger for the great food Jim prepares each month.

And even here, even today, we know it is the Holy Spirit Who proclaims Jesus in God’s Word and in the Sacraments, the Holy Spirit Who claimed us in Holy Baptism and gives us the ability to call on the name of the Lord Jesus, Who saves us, Who gives us new and everlasting life with God!

Pentecost is still happening! The Holy Spirit is still on the march in our world, in our lives, and in the Church, in this church! May He give us the power and the confidence that He gave the first disciples to march in time with Him and share the good news of Jesus with a world still in desperate need of Him. Amen

[The painting is Pentecost by Titian (1488-1576)

Jesus Alone!

[This message was shared yesterday, May 27, during the wedding of two members of Living Water Lutheran Church. It was a joy-filled occasion!]

John 3:1-21
Colleen and John made a specific request of me when it came to the message presented today. They didn’t want a wedding sermon. They wanted a message that pointed to Jesus, God the Son, the One Who describes Himself as “the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) 

I like to think that all my sermons point to Jesus. But I understood what the two of them meant. They wanted a sermon that would unambiguously give you Jesus and His Gospel this afternoon.

That suits me just fine!

The passage from the Gospel of John which I just read recounts part of an incident that took place early in Jesus’ earthly ministry. A man named Nicodemus visits Jesus by night. The probable reason that Nicodemus, a major figure in the religious life of first-century Judea, chooses this time of day for his visit is that he doesn’t want to be seen with Jesus. Already, other religious leaders, people who would later call for Jesus’ execution, were alarmed by Jesus. It could be bad for Nicodemus’ reputation and authority if he publicly associated with Jesus.

Back when I was an atheist, I wasn’t always keen on being seen with my friends who were Christians. I thought that others I wanted to impress would think I was unintelligent, judgmental, or weak if I hung out with Christians.

Of course, we all prefer not to be seen when we know or suspect that what we’re doing is wrong. Maybe Nicodemus wonders whether seeing Jesus is actually wrong. Or, that Jesus will see his sin more clearly in the daylight.

In any case, Nicodemus preferrs darkness. In the course of their conversation which goes longer than the lesson I just read, Jesus tells Nicodemus why this teacher chose to visit Jesus by night. “Light has come into the world,” Jesus says, referring to Himself as God’s Light,  “but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

Now, as Colleen and John can tell you, there are two ways in which God speaks to us in His Word

He can speak to us through His Law, the moral code He commands us all to obey and which none of us is capable of obeying

God’s Law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. There, we’re told, for example, to worship no other God but the One now revealed to us in Jesus; but we give all sorts of things higher priority than we do to God. We’re to honor God’s Name and God’s Word; but we fail to do these things all the time. And we’re no more successful in doing God’s will in relation to other people, whether it’s in thought, word, or deed, when it comes to honoring parents or refraining from murder, theft, adultery, gossip, or enviously desiring what other people have. 

All of these violations of God’s Law of which we are, to one extent or another, guilty every day, stem from our inborn alienation from God, a condition called sin that leads to committing individual sins. 

I have a two year old granddaughter who is the most beautiful and perfect child in the world. But one of her favorite words, which she says when her parents or grandparents try to steer her from trouble is, “No!” Now, nobody taught her to sin. Like you and me, she was born knowing how to do it. 

The Law brings bad news: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) In other words, we all deserve punishment and eternal separation from God and we cannot save ourselves. We can’t be nice enough, moral enough, or good enough to avoid the death sentence for sin we deserve.

Our situation would be hopeless if it weren’t for the fact that God speaks another word to us. 

This Word is the Gospel, the good news that brings forgiveness for sin and eternal life with God to all it woos to faith in Jesus

Jesus gives us the Gospel-in-a-nutshell in the words He speaks to Nicodemus in our lesson: “For God so loved the world [God so loved you] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Faith in Jesus isn’t something we have to work ourselves up to. To have faith, there’s no decision for us to make. The Bible says that faith in Christ is a gift that God gives us.

The Word of the Law convicts of our sin, leaving us aware of our need of God to save us from sin and death.

But the Word of the Gospel gives us Jesus, Who, though He had no sin, took the death punishment for sin we deserve, then rose from the dead to open eternity to all who believe.

There are three ways this Gospel Word comes to us from outside of ourselves, from God Himself.

First, through His Word, heard, read, taught, or preached.

Second, through Holy Baptism, by which God drowns our old selves with all our sins and raises us to new life to become His own children and by which He sends the Holy Spirit to be our teacher even when we walk away from God. In Baptism, Jesus says, we are born of water and the Holy Spirit.

And third, through Holy Communion, by which Jesus gives His body and blood to us, in other words, His crucified and risen life, and also gives us the forgiveness of sins.

It’s by these three means that Jesus comes to you and loves you into faith and eternal life with Him.

When we receive these gifts with the assurance that through them, Jesus and His Gospel come to us, God gives us saving faith and everlasting life with God.

I had been an atheist for about ten years when, to get my wife off of my back for sleeping in on Sunday mornings, I started attending worship with her. There, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Columbus, this Gospel Word, speaking God’s love and forgiveness for me despite my sins and disloyalty to God, came to me as it first had as a baby, when I was baptized, and as a little boy who had gone to church and Sunday School. No one was more shocked than I was to realize that, after a few years of receiving this Gospel Word at my wife’s church, I could say, “I believe that Jesus is my God and my Savior.” When I realized that I believed in Jesus, I knew that I belonged to God, that He stood beside me always, and that one day, Jesus would raise me from the grave to live with Him forever.

With a heart broken by our sin, yet filled with love for us, God says through the prophet Ezekiel six-hundred years before Jesus’ birth, “I do not enjoy seeing sinners die.” (Ezekiel 33:11, GNT

God wants us all to live eternally in a joy even greater than the joy we have for John and Colleen today, a joy that goes with living with God and with all who have trusted in Christ in a kingdom free of sin, death, darkness, and futility. 

Life without Jesus is darkness, death, and condemnation.

Life with Jesus is light, life, and eternal freedom. 

Jesus died on a cross and rose from a grave to make life with God possible for us all. 

He’s done everything necessary for the Gospel promise to belong to you. 

Your call is to daily turn from sin and to daily turn to Him for forgiveness and for life with God. 

For these gifts and so much more, you can trust Jesus. Amen

[This painting of Jesus with Nicodemus is from the collection of the Smithsonian and is in the public domain.]

God's Law and Gospel, May 28, 2023