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3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 15:4-6

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!  In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, I don’t like getting lost.  In fact, I really don’t like being lost.  If I get into my car, I want to know where I’m going and how to get there.  I’ve been lost in the past.  It’s not much fun, you get confused, you waste time, you waste gas, you waste energy, it’s not fun.  Well, I’m guessing I’m not alone.  I’m guessing that most people here don’t exactly enjoy being lost or losing their way.  Our world understands this desire of us humans to not be lost.  In fact, our world has invested a lot of time and money and energy in order that people don’t get lost.  First, we have those large sheets of paper that you have to fold up and out, those things that are becoming obsolete, maps, right?  Then, we have the internet with websites that with a few clicks of your mouse you can not only see a digital map of where you want to go, you can also access a recent satellite image of what the area looks like from an aerial view, you can also with a few clicks get a detailed list of directions telling you exactly where to turn and how long to stay on each road to get to your destination.  And let’s not forget about GPS technology, where you can put this little box in your car and using satellites it locates your exact location so that you can have real time step by step directions on where to go!  I think it’s safe to say that us humans are prone to getting lost, without help we can easily get distracted and lose our way, if we don’t know where we are going.

Well, that’s also true in our lives as Christians.  We can, all too easily, lose our direction and our focus and our goal and purpose for being here. Well, as Christians we want purpose and direction for our lives, don’t we?  We want to know where our lives are going, where we are headed, what we’re supposed to be doing.  As Christians united together as members of a congregation and as members of a larger group of Christians called a synod, we want to have purpose and direction for our lives.  We don’t want to be lost.  We want to know what we are supposed to be doing.

Well, God knows that we need directions, He knows that we need purpose and meaning for our lives, so, many centuries before you or I were even born He had His Words for us written down in human language that we might learn what His good and gracious will is for our lives.  “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.”  God has recorded everything that we need to know for our lives in His Word.  God’s Word is a history of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promise to save human beings from their sin.  God’s whole purpose for His Word is both keeping people connected to Christ and connecting other people to Christ through it.  That’s why we are here.  We’re here to stay connected to Christ through His Word and Sacraments and to use our lives in any way we can to connect others to Christ through the gospel.

So He’s given us His Word so that “through endurance and the encouragement of Scriptures we might have hope.”  Not only does God give our lives purpose and direction, He also uses His Word to encourage us and help us endure along our way.  Just like it’s easy to get distracted while you’re driving, you may be listening to the radio and miss the exit you needed, you may be talking on the phone and miss the turn you were supposed to take, you may be looking on the wrong side of the road and miss the place you were looking for.  It’s also easy for us to get distracted.  The devil wants nothing more than to distract us from our purpose here on this earth.

And how does he do that?  He gets us to drive down the self-centered alley, to drive down the street of thinking life is all about me or life is all about ______, then he’ll lead us into the tunnel of discouragement, “my life isn’t going the way that I think it should be going,” (notice I’ve made my own purpose up in my mind for why I am here and have replaced that with what God says I’m here for), the devil isn’t going to make it easy to carry out your purpose in life, he will resist in any way that he can, he doesn’t want you to be connected to Christ nor does he want you to connect others to Christ, the very fact that God’s told us that we’ll have to endure and be encouraged is a sobering reminder that everything won’t always go nice and easy for us.

But what’s God’s answer?  He leads us back to His Word, to the source.  The Scriptures are a powerful and positive force in our lives because they fill us with encouragement and endurance not to just “get through” life gritting our teeth and bearing it, but even in the midst of our difficulties we can look for opportunities to serve others in unselfish love to fulfill our purpose on life, to strive to stay connected to Christ, and to connect others to Christ.  If you think about it, there is nothing more encouraging in life than reviewing the promises of our faithful God given us in His Word.  And as we do so our hope also grows.  God promised a Savior, kept that promise alive over centuries, sent that Savior, Jesus lived and then died on the cross for our sins, Jesus rose from the dead canceling our debt of sin in full.  Then, having been built up and empowered and strengthened by God through His Word we are emboldened in our hope.  And our hope causes us to endure difficult situations because we know that in the end there will be blessing.  That’s what hope means.  It’s not just some wishy-washy thing, for us Christians, our hope in God is sure and certain, it’s confidence in our faithful God and His faithful promise of glory with him after this life.

Which brings us to why we’re celebrating Walking Together Sunday?  “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  As we focus on God, since God is one, He brings about true unity among His people.  There is great strength in unity.  500 soldiers going into battle each with their own ideas, plans, and strategies are easily defeated.  500 soldiers united in one plan and strategy and each supporting that plan brings strength and victory.

After having examined what this congregation believes and teaches and comparing it with what God says in His Word, you were led to say, “Yes.  I believe that too.  I am united in faith with these Christian people.  I support the work of this congregation.”  Now as a member of this Christian congregation not only are you constantly reminded, refocused, and realigned back on God’s directions and purpose for your life, you’re kept on the right track that leads to heaven.  And God uses you through your time, talents, treasures to refocus other souls on God’s path and connect them to Christ!

Yes, someone can read the Bible at home, yes, someone can be a Christian without belonging to a church, but the problem is that it leaves you like a sheep wandering around in the wild with no one looking after you.  Who’s going to teach you God’s Word?  Who’s going to correct you when you’re wrong?  Who’s going to care about your spiritual welfare, keep you on the narrow path?  In a Christian congregation you’re united with other believers, not only are you helped to stay on the right track, not only is there a body of believers who care about you and your soul, you also are able to unselfishly care for others and help them stay focused and on the right track.

And yet, this same truth applies to a greater degree as well.  As Christians united together in faith in this congregation we are also united in faith with many Christians all over our nation in the larger church body to which we belong.  Unity brings strength and focus.  There are things we could not do as an individual congregation.  It would be very difficult for us to operate a college and Seminary to train future pastors, it would be very difficult for us to single-handedly send missionaries to China or Africa, it would be very difficult for us to operate a Publishing house to publish Christian materials on our own.  But, united with many other congregations our congregation can and does do that!  As we along with many other congregations support our synod we can send missionaries to China, train future pastors, etc.  We follow the directions that God has given us to connect people to Christ!  And our synod looks after us, if we start wandering away from the narrow way as a congregation our brothers and sisters in Christ will help us and correct us.

The devil, of course, doesn’t like any of this.  He doesn’t want us to have a “spirit of unity among us as we follow Christ.”  In fact, he hates it.  So what does he do?  He’ll do anything to disrupt us, to cause divisions among us, to get us all bent out of shape over non-essential things, to distract our focus off why we are here so we are picking fights with each other.  He likes a church to get lost, to be inwardly focused, to pick fights with each other over non-essential things like what color to paint the fellowship hall or the color of the carpet.  He knows that if he can distract us from why we are here, we’ll veer off the path and forget that we are here to connect people to Jesus.

So what’s the answer?  By God’s grace as members of this Christian congregation let’s not lose our focus.  Let’s focus on the source of endurance, encouragement and hope: God’s Word and we’ll be reminded why we’re here: to be connected to Christ our Savior through His Word.  To be refreshed, renewed, and reinvigorated by the message of full and free forgiveness in Christ and the sure hope of eternal life.  And to take that message to our community and to the world.  Doing that, then “with one heart and mouth we will glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Amen.