Saturday, August 19, 2023

Truth for the "Self-Sufficient"

[This is a presentation shared last evening, during a dinner following a charity golf tournament supporting Whole Truth Ministries. Whole Truth is a Christian ministry that helps the addicted community to transition successfully to healthy, productive lives. If you would like more information on Whole Truth or to donate, here is a link to the ministry's website.]

Months ago, when Jim Lopez conveyed the invitation to me to speak here tonight, I was honored to be asked and because I so believe in the work of Whole Truth, I immediately said, “Yes!” 

When, a few days ago, Jim reminded me that last year’s speaker was Anthony Muñoz, I wondered whether I hadn’t made a big mistake. 

But if you’re willing to scale down your expectations to about a guy at 5’8” and 150 pounds, with no past or present athletic ability, I want to spend a few minutes sharing my heart with you about Whole Truth Ministries.

Now Jim, who is a member of the congregation I serve as pastor, Living Water Lutheran Church, was the first one to tell me about Whole Truth. Once a month, Jim takes a spread he prepares for women and men served by this ministry. Several years ago, he asked if I would be willing to tag along with him and provide a Bible study.

I need to make a confession. When I agreed to do the Bible study, I had two reactions.

The first was wondering whether the men and women in recovery to whom Whole Truth ministers would be interested in what I had to say. Over the past thirty-nine years, I’ve gotten asked to do lots of presentations to groups. Usually, Bible study for these groups has been nothing more than a box to be checked.

My second reaction, the one of which I’m most ashamed, was thinking that in doing a Bible study, I would be the one giving and the folks sitting around those tables at dinner would be the ones receiving. What a lot of egotistical rot!

Never have I been around a group of people who, almost universally, were so hungry for the Word of God, so hungry for Jesus, “the living bread who comes down from heaven” and the “living water…” that becomes a “spring…welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) In their desire for Jesus and the new and everlasting life that only Jesus can give, the recovering folks I’ve met and interacted with at Whole Truth have given me far more than I have ever given them.

Above all, they’ve given me an important reminder. Jesus once told His disciples–and you and me, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; [and then He said] apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. Do you believe that?

You know what I think? 

I think that when our lives are going reasonably well, when things are OK at work, when our families are healthy, when we’ve got a comfortable home and get to take nice vacations, it’s easy for us to think that we can handle life without Jesus. Jesus, at most, becomes an add-on accessorizing our lives. We’re sure that through our brain, brawn, willpower, and stick-to-it-iveness, we’ll be OK. We even think that our charitable works–even these good things we do, speak to our self-sufficiency, our personal agency. 

We think this even though God’s Word tells us, “... it 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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) 

The truth is that even your being here tonight, raising money for Whole Truth Ministries, is a good work that God already created for you beforehand. You’re only walking in it here this evening. (I don’t know whether he wanted you to walk into your double bogey or not. That’s another issue.)

But here’s the thing: Though we may doubt Jesus when He tells us, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing,” the recovering community served by Whole Truth Ministries doesn’t doubt that

The reason for that is simple: When you’ve come to the end of yourself and Jesus Christ is all you’ve got, you realize that Jesus is all you need

The folks with whom I’ve shared the Word of God at Whole Truth are often already steeped in the Word of God because, down in the bottom of life, in the lowlands of human experience, the God revealed in Jesus Christ reached out to them through His Word and the work of Whole Truth, which is built on His Word!

Whole Truth is a ministry of God’s Word. Its primary ministry is to serve the Word of God to the people it serves.

The New Testament says that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword…” (Hebrews 4:12) 

The two edges of God’s Word, the two ways God speaks to us, are Law and Gospel. 

The Law gives us the will of God and leads us to recognize that we’re sinners who, no matter how hard we work to fool ourselves into believing we’re self-sufficient, good people, without Jesus Christ, we can do nothing. Nothing that matters. Nothing good. Nothing helpful. Nothing lasting. The Law means to drive us to the ends of ourselves to the foot of the cross where Jesus freely gave His life for self-sufficient sinners.

The Gospel is God’s good news that He covers those who are at the end of themselves and come to Jesus by faith, with the righteousness, life, grace, peace, and hope that only come from Jesus Christ

People who have been reached by Christ and His gospel are those who recognize the delusion of self-sufficiency, lay aside their defenses, and compelled by the Word of God, confess that “Jesus is Lord. Not me. Jesus alone.” 

It is the Gospel, the good news of forgiveness, new life, fresh starts, and everlasting hope freely given to those who turn to Jesus, that I see in the people served by Whole Truth Ministries

They may have once thought when they were abusing various substances that they were making their own decisions, even as their lives spiraled out of control. The Word of God given to them by Whole Truth, turns them from the self-destruction that happens when we cling to the lie of self-sufficiency and shows them Jesus, “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

Whole Truth Ministries has helped me see this more clearly and I thank everyone involved in it for their ministry to me in Jesus’ name. 

I also thank you for the support you’re giving to Whole Truth, making it possible to reach even more people who need this ministry.

Finally, I want to remind you that the Word of God about Jesus Christ, the gospel, the good news, that is changing the lives of so many through Whole Truth Ministries can transform all of our lives. You aren’t and you don’t need to be self-sufficient either. 
The power of God, given in Christ, can lead us each day and change our eternity. 

The Gospel of Mark records only one sermon preached by Jesus, encompassed in a single verse: “The right time has come…and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15, GNT)

If we all are reminded by Whole Truth Ministries to turn away from sin and the garbage that bedevils, distracts, and harasses us in this life, and to turn in trust to Jesus, our Good News, its work will impact more than the just community it directly serves. It will impact and change for the better the lives of all who are part of it. 

Thank you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Word That Saves You

[Below, you'll find both live stream video of today's single worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church and the text of the message shared today. Have a good and blessed week!]

Matthew 14:22-33
One of the joys of being a parish pastor, a joy that the Bible tells us can be shared by any Christian willing to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, is in what’s called the Office of the Keys.

We exercise the Office of the Keys whenever someone, in the name and under the lordship of Jesus, confesses their sins, turns from them, seeks the assurance of God’s forgiveness from us, and we are able to proclaim God’s forgiveness of all their sins to them.

Jesus has given this office to the Church and, while all members of the Church can exercise it, the Church has given particular responsibility to pastors to do so.

Jesus does this, for example, in John 20:23, when He tells the Church: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

And Jesus also says in Matthew 18:18: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

God, it turns out, is not against us sinners.

God is for sinners, like you and me.

He wants to free all sinners from the bondage to sin from which we cannot free ourselves.

That’s why Jesus, God the Son, came into our world and, enfleshed as the Man without sin, took our sins, all of our sins, into Himself, absorbing the death and condemnation we deserve, on His cross so that we could have His righteousness and life forever.

When penitent sinners are told, “Because of Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven,” they are hearing the Word from Jesus Christ Himself. They can believe that their sins are forgiven.

Nothing more needs to be said.

No questions need to be asked.

Through Jesus, we are free of sin, condemnation, and death.

“If the Son sets you free,” Jesus says of Himself, “you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

But I’ve noticed something that sometimes happens to sinners when God’s Word of forgiveness, His Word of absolution, comes to us.

A woman came to see me, mostly to confess a sin for which she felt guilty, a sin that had happened decades before.

I told her that her guilt for the sin was appropriate, but that, as she turned to Jesus Christ, she could be assured of God’s forgiveness.

I reminded her of biblical promises like, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15)

“In Christ,” I told her, “all your sins are forgiven.” Her guilt, I assured her, was erased by the grace of God extended to us through Christ!

The woman wept for a few moments and then said, “I wish that I could believe that.”

There was little more I could say to her now. I’d given her Christ’s Word that she was forgiven, that Jesus, God the Son, had taken her sin away. But here she was taking it  back again!

At the end of our second lesson for today, the apostle Paul tells us, “ comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17) That woman ignored the Word about Christ and so could not and would not believe that she was saved from sin and death and forgiven through Him. She insisted on believing the words of the devil, the world, and her sinful self that told her that forgiveness couldn’t possibly be that simple, that she needed to do more, that she needed to be more for her to be out from under condemnation and death. Jesus was offering her forgiveness and new life with God as a gift and she wanted to earn it.

That woman isn’t alone. Years ago, a man told me that he liked reading a particular Christian author. Why? “Because,” he said, “he always makes me feel guilty. And after I get guilty, I can get busy working on my salvation and holy living.”

The Bible tells us that Jesus, by going to the cross and rising from the tomb, has already secured our salvation, our justification, and our holy lives, our sanctification. Our call is to simply attend to His Word, given to us in the Bible and the Sacraments…to keep receiving these gifts, because it is by these gifts, that God gives us the gift of faith and strengthens that faith. (This is why regular worship with the Church is essential to being a follower of Jesus. There’s no such thing as a solo Christian.) Hebrews 10:10 says, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” You don’t have to do anything to make that happen.

We see a person like this woman and this man in the apostle Peter in today’s Gospel lesson.

After feeding the 5000-plus, Jesus sends the disciples away by boat, dismisses the crowd, and goes to a mountain to pray alone. Deep into the night, toward dawn, the disciples are still in their boat on the sea during a raging storm. Don’t confuse this with an earlier incident in which Jesus slept through a storm that terrified the disciples. Matthew tells us about that incident too. This time though, we have no indication that the disciples were afraid of the storm. They seem to feel they have everything under control. They’re competent, have it together, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Jesus is about to show them differently.

“Shortly before dawn,” Matthew says, “Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.” When the disciples catch sight of this, they’re terrified!

A lot of people think they would have liked to lived back when Jesus walked on the earth. They think they would see Him and see His kind, sweet visage.

But, listen, friends: unrepentant sinners, like the disciples who had so recently suggested that, rather than helping the needy crowd around them, Jesus should send them away so they could buy their own food, never find it pleasant to be in the presence of the perfect, holy, righteous Son of God. That’s why they were terrified. But the New Testament says that, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

Those who refuse to live in daily repentance and faith in Christ stand naked in their sins, unprotected from God’s wrath and condemnation. When the disciples see Jesus, they think He’s a ghost. They cry out in fear.

But then, Jesus tells them, literally, in verse 27: “Take courage. I AM. Do not fear.” “Take courage. Yahweh. Do not be afraid.”

Friends, although He is God and we are sinful human beings, Jesus speaks a Word that conquers our sin, sets us free from death, and gives us peace.

The disciples are right to initially feel terrified in coming face to face with Jesus. He is God. He is, as the theologian of the last century, Paul Tillich said, “wholly Other”: completely different from us, completely holy, completely righteous, completely perfect.

The disciples are seeing the Messiah Who will one day judge the living and the dead.

They see Jesus in His raw deity.

They recognize the distance between Him, in His righteousness and purity, and them, in their unrepentant, proud, arrogant, self-sufficient sinfulness.

But the God we know in Jesus has no desire to damn them–or us–for sin, no desire to see us die, separated from God, consumed by wrath from which He otherwise protects us.

So, Jesus speaks a comforting Gospel Word to you and me even now: “Do not fear. I take the wrath you deserve into myself. Your sins are forgiven.”

So, to the first disciples, terrified in the boat, Jesus speaks His Gospel Word of promise. That should be enough to calm the fears of all.

But, there in the boat is one who still isn’t sure: Peter, out stand-in.

Even after Jesus’ Word of absolution, Peter is unbelieving. Peter doesn’t trust Jesus or His Word. Like the man who told me he liked the author who left him feeling guilty, Peter wants Jesus to give him a program by which he, not Jesus, can overcome his guilt, sin, and fear. He wants Jesus to prove He’s the Messiah Peter wants and he wants to prove what a righteous person he is even without the Messiah, Jesus.

And, so he says, “Lord, if it’s you,...tell me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28)

“Come,” Jesus tells Peter.

Jesus, in effect, is saying, “OK, Peter, you won’t believe that My Word is enough to save you? You need proof that My Word can even save an unrepentant sinner like you? Come out here and take a walk on the water.”

Of course, as soon as Peter turns his attention to the wind, he’s back to feeling terrified again and begins to sink. Jesus catches Peter and upbraids Him: “You of little faith,...why did you doubt?”

Friends, do not doubt!

You were saved from sin and death at Holy Baptism, when Jesus fished you from the water and claimed you as His own.

Your salvation is confirmed every time you are able, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working in God’s Word, to confess that Jesus is your Lord.

The Word has come to you again and again during sermons, family devotion times, Bible studies, and Holy Communion.

This Word has spoken through God’s Law to show you your sin and through Christ’s Gospel to give you the gifts of repentance, saving faith, forgiveness, and new life.

Jesus tells us, “ Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:40)

Friends, this morning it is again my joy to exercise the Office of the Keys and tell you who repent and turn to Jesus, “Do not be afraid. You are not condemned. Christ died and rose for you. In Him, you are forgiven!” Amen