God’s given you an eternal purpose!

16th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:46-48, John 20:19-23, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, who has given us our mission in life, dear friends in Christ,

You’re driving down the road and you look down and you see this (show pic of a gas gauge on empty). You’re in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception. What are your thoughts? What’s your reaction? How do you feel? What’s it like to run your car on empty? Anxious? Nervous? Scared? On the verge of a breakdown? Without fuel your car won’t go anywhere and you can be left stranded.  Well, not only do our vehicles need fuel to keep going, our bodies also need fuel to keep going. What happens when you don’t eat? What happens when you miss a meal? What happens when you don’t eat for a day? Generally, if I miss a meal or two, not only do I get hungry, I also get somewhat irritable, cranky, tired, often I’ll develop some sort of a headache. Our bodies need food. Our cars need fuel. Well, in a way, our souls need food and fuel too. The food and fuel for our soul is God’s life giving Word and Sacraments. If our souls are not fed and fueled, they will die.

You and I were born into this world dead in sin and doomed to death in the dungeon of hell. But God did something about that. God sent Jesus to rescue us with His life, death, and resurrection. Then in further grace, God sent the Holy Spirit to bring us to spiritual life, to convince us that what Jesus did is the truth. And when God worked the miracle of faith in your heart, when God convinced you that what Jesus did on the cross, He did for you, when God led you to trust in Jesus as your Savior – maybe at your baptism, maybe sometime later – God could have simply taken you from this life and into life eternal. Being brought to faith in Jesus is what is most important. So, in one sense God’s purpose for you is complete: you’ve been brought to faith, you’ve been made an heir of eternal life. But you’re still here! I’m still here! God hasn’t taken you or me from this life yet! That means God still has a purpose for us.

And it’s a twofold purpose. The first part is summed up in 2 Peter 3, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” That’s part of the purpose for which God has left you in this world: to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. To continue to be fed and fueled by God’s Word and Sacraments. There is no plateauing or coasting as a Christian, either our faith is growing or it’s dying, it’s either getting stronger or getting weaker.

And really, that’s why we exist as a congregation. We exist to assist people in growing up in their salvation, we exist to help you hold firmly to everything that Jesus has instructed us, we exist to continue to provide opportunities for you to mature in your Christian faith.

You see, there’s a big difference between an infant and a mature adult. Perhaps we all know people who’ve never “grown up.” What they often like? They’re needy people, they’re insecure, they’re immature, they do things that are silly and foolish, they’re a rollercoaster of emotions, they’re selfish, they’re childish, etc. This is same when it comes to being a Christian. You can be a Christian baby or you can be a Christian adult.

If you remain a Christian infant, what happens in life? What happens when the waves and storms of life come? There’s a big difference between a small toddler standing in a river and an adult when a large wave comes splashing down the river. Who is going to be better able to stand firm? The mature adult! There’s all kinds of things that happen in life – troubles, hardships, difficulties, medical problems, sicknesses, deaths, tragedies, financial burdens, problems, difficult people – they’re kind of like waves. A Christian adult is much more prepared to weather the storms of life. I once had a call from someone – not a member here – but she was frantic, distraught, scared, because she had found out that her mother was just diagnosed with cancer. At the very same time I knew someone else who was actively in her Bible, actively engaged in her church, who’s close family member was also diagnosed with cancer. The difference between the two was like the difference between an adult and a child. God wants us to continue to grow in our Christian maturity.

And maturity isn’t just about what you know, it also about how you apply what you know in what you do and how you act. God doesn’t just want His truths to be firmly in our minds, He also wants them to be in our hearts. Christian maturity isn’t just about being able to quote the Bible, it’s about knowing God’s Word and applying it in how I act and treat other people. That means, not just knowing that God loves me and God wants me to love others, it means applying that on a day to day basis with the way that I treat my spouse, my children, my parents, my coworkers, my friends, the person in front of me at the grocery store. It means, not just knowing that God wants me to pray to Him, but actively setting aside time to engage God in prayer. It means, not just knowing that God promises to be with me always and work all things out for my good, but actually applying that and looking for the blessings of God in every circumstance.

And that’s why St. Marks is here! We’re here to facilitate the continual growth of faith in Jesus. Conversion happens in an instant and in a moment when God the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel to convince us that Jesus is our Savior. But at the same time the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our heart and begins a life-long process of sanctification. Through the Word and Sacraments God works in each of us a greater and greater desire to hear God’s Word, read it, learn it, take it to heart. Then the Holy Spirit leads us to make changes to our priorities. We begin to see the importance of God and His Word- indeed, the number one importance.

God didn’t have to, but God has chosen to work on us through very specific means. Growing in faith doesn’t really happen from gazing at a sunset, or staring at the clouds, or looking at a beautiful landscape. Those are all nice things, they might lead us to appreciate God’s creation.  But, God has chosen to come to us through very specific means- the means of grace, the tools He has chosen to use to work on our hearts: the Gospel that comes to us both in the Word of God and in the Sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

So, if we want to grow in our faith, to what will we direct our attention? To the Word and the Sacraments! That’s why St. Mark’s exists. We exist to share the gospel by teaching God’s Word and administering the sacraments.

That’s part of your purpose in life: Grow in your faith. And how do you do that? By hearing, reading, studying, learning God’s Word. By recalling your baptism daily. By receiving the Lord’s Supper over and over again. And as you do so, what happens? You learn and appreciate more and more the fact and the reality that you have a God who loves you so much that He sent His own Son to be your Savior, to live a life free from sin in your place, to die on a cross as a full payment for each and every sin that you’ve committed. And the more you know about God’s love, His power, His faithfulness, the more you’ll be able to apply it to your life. When the tragedies and difficulties of life come (and they will) being rooted in God’s Word you’ll have an eternal focus and be able to put things in their proper perspective. You’ll see more and more how God does indeed work all things out for the good of His people. You’ll find more and more ways to give glory to God in every circumstance. You’ll be able to remain firm in your trust in God’s grace and power through thick and through thin, through weal and woe.

In fact, so dear does God want His Word to be to us that we actually crave His Word like newborn babies. If you’ve been to St. Mark’s you’ve heard a baby cry because we have tons of babies here. What a cool thought every time you hear a baby cry because he or she is hungry – that’s how God wants you and me to be about His Word- He wants us to crave His Word. He wants us to fix His words in our minds and hearts, the more we know God’s Word it just becomes part of us. And the blessing? God tells us that as we are into His Word He gives us those fruits of the Spirit – more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Try it. God doesn’t lie! He will give you more of those things as you dig deeply into His Word.

That’s why we’re a church. So that we ALL can continue to grow up in our salvation, grow in our faith, stand firm in our faith and not be carried away by error or temptation.  And then something else happens. As we grow in the Word, as we learn more about God and what God has done for us. As we learn more about the love of Christ that has reconciled us to God, we’re compelled. “Christ’s love compels us.” Compels to do what? To be God’s ambassadors in the world. To blab all over the place the message of reconciliation with God through Christ. What did Jesus direct us to do? “Go and make disciples of all nations.” “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

As Christians God has given us the privilege and honor of being His partners in taking the good news of Jesus to more and more people. You do that by inviting people to church or bible study, you do that by communicating your faith to people, by crediting God with the blessings in your life and in others, by giving someone a message about Jesus when they are down, afraid, lonely, or confused. God has entrusted you with the message of life eternal through the forgiveness of sins in Jesus!

Many years ago a Lutheran pastor once commented something like this, “If you discovered a way to prolong human life for a few more years, oh how people would adore you, respect you, cherish you.” Just think if you discovered a simple universal cure for all forms of cancer or some other disease. How would people react? Wouldn’t people absolutely love you? But think about what message we bring! We bring to people a message not just of prolonging this earthly life a little longer, but a message that affects a person for all eternity!! Can you imagine meeting someone in heaven and that person telling you, “God used you to comfort me when I was done, God used you to bring the message of Jesus to me, God used the church that you supported with your prayers and offerings to lead me to my Savior.” Could anything in life possibly be better than that?

That’s why you’re here! God’s given you incredible purpose for life. God’s given incredible purpose for us as a congregation. As long as you’re still in this life, as long as we’re still a congregation, God wants us to focus on the purpose and mission He’s given us: To continue to grow in our salvation and continue to go with God’s good news taking it to more and more people. And that’s an eternal purpose! Amen.

When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough.

14th Sunday of Pentecost
Hebrews 10:11-18

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, dear friends who are saints before God because of Jesus, Winston Churchill the prime minister of England during World War 2 once said, “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.” What did he mean by that? I think what he meant by that was that instead of making the excuse, “I tried my best, that’ll have to be good enough,” that there are times when a person has to rise beyond what they normally think is their best to meet a challenge. Perhaps it was something that he felt strongly about since there were quite few times during WWII where it seemed that the fate of the world hung in a balance. Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you have to do what is required.

But we say that all the time, don’t we? “Just do your best.” “Try as hard as you can, that’s all that can be asked.” “All God expects is that we do our best. We can’t do any more than that.” I know I’ve heard that plenty of times in my life. I know that I’ve even told that to people. The world we live in has for the most part determined that whatever a person’s best is, that is good enough. Sounds nice. Sounds reasonable. But is our best really good enough?

When it comes to God, not at all! It’s dead wrong when it comes to the most important thing in all of life: our salvation. God’s standards, if we are going to enter heaven, is absolute perfection.  And God doesn’t lower His standards – perfection- that’s what God demands. And there’s not one of us whose “best” even comes close to that standard of perfection. No, God IS NOT satisfied with your best. Not when it comes to salvation. God’s standards are far higher; God’s standard is perfection.

And what do we see when we look closely at our lives? Don’t we see failure after failure? Think about it with regard to the Lord’s Supper. God wants each of us to examine ourselves before we take the Lord’s Supper, so we do that. As you examine yourself, what do you find? If you’re anything at all like me, you’ll quickly see a disturbing trend. I end up confessing the same sins over and over and over again. Yes, there are times when something “new” comes up. Great, I’ve found a new way to offend God! But for the most part I find myself confessing the same sins over and over again.

And it’s not for a lack of trying either. Each time I make a promise to myself that I’m going to work hard, try harder at fighting those temptations.  And I give it my best effort, but when the Lord’s Supper rolls around again, what do I find? Great! Those same sins have happened again, and again, and again! It’s incredibly frustrating! Do you have the same experience? Yep, I’m guessing we all do. So, to ask, “Is God happy with my best efforts? Is He satisfied with my best?” It’s almost laughable to ask the question. We’re just not good enough, and we’ll never be! And the reality is, if we’re not perfect, if God isn’t pleased with us, we face the horrible future of spending an eternity absent from God and His blessings in hell. God’s Word makes it very clear that hell is a reality and Jesus tells us that it’s horridness is beyond comprehension. Anyone who isn’t perfect won’t go to heaven and there’s only one other option and that’s hell. And over and over again as we examine ourselves we see how our best efforts have failed and how much we deserve hell.

Well, perhaps the Old Testament priests understood this. They were to offer sacrifices to God day after day. They offered burnt offerings, which indicated that the people were going to give themselves completely, wholly, 100% to God. They offered sin offerings, where they confessed that they’d sinned against God and deserved His punishment but relied on Him for mercy. They offered fellowship offerings, where part of the animal or grain was sacrificed and part was eaten by the person bringing the sacrifice, indicating that there was wonderful fellowship between God and His people.

Now, if those sacrifices had been done perfectly, what would have happened? They would have only needed to be offered once. One time would have been sufficient because they were done perfectly and correctly. But what happened? “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices” Day after day after day after day they brought the same sacrifices and no matter how heartfelt they were, no matter how much they desired to “do it right this time,” no matter how hard they tried to do their best, those sacrifices failed, over and over again, why? Because finally those sacrifices couldn’t take away sins.

But there is one sacrifice which could and which did! That’s the sacrifice which Jesus made when He sacrificed Himself on the cross. “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” Just one time Jesus had to sacrifice, just one time he had to go to the cross, just one time he had to give his life, His sacrifice was perfect and complete. It worked! Verse 17 says it very clearly, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” The original has this idea, “I will in NO WAY remember their sins” it’s a permanent prohibition. In other words, God has made the choice of His will that He will no longer remember your sins. Your sins and your lawless acts God will never ever remember them. Why? Because Jesus forgave them. Jesus offered Himself as the ONE sacrifice which really worked. Because of that God has decided NOT to remember your sins anymore!

There is only one way to heaven. It’s by being totally perfect. And either you provide your own perfection or you trust in the perfection provided by a substitute. If you refuse to believe in that substitute, you are asking God to judge you by your own efforts and your own work. God’s answer will always be, “Away from me to the eternal fire.”

But it ISN’T your work, your sacrifice, your job, your best efforts, your best intentions that satisfy God – God requires perfection – rather, it’s Christ perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that God is pleased with. So, in one sense, God’s goal for you and me has been met.  We’re told in verse 14 that because of Jesus’ one sacrifice, God has made His believers perfect. In fact, it says, “perfect forever!” The results of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, the results of that one sacrifice mean you’re going to heaven forever! You stand before God as perfect right now! You will stand before God as perfect forever! God has done the very best, the very best that we in no way could accomplish, Jesus accomplished in our place!

But God still has lots of work to do in you and in me! Did you notice verse 14? It says that God has “made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” What does that mean? Well, think about it. When you and I are born into this world, we were conceived as sinful human beings that deserve only to be sent to hell. But God loved us so much that He sent Jesus, who offered himself as that ONE sacrifice for sins on the cross. He paid your sins in full. Then, in wonderful grace, God called you to faith – convinced you that what Jesus did, He did it for you. For many of us, it happened when we were baptized, for others it happened later as God worked through His Word. But either way, God called you to faith and brought you to know that your sins are forgiven. And that leads the believer to say, “Thank you” to God.

And how do we do that? Well, we do that by loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and loving our neighbor as ourselves. When God first brought us to faith we struggled with that. As a little child I had to be taught to say “please” and “thank you,” had to be taught to show respect, honor, share, be unselfish and so on. My faith grew, so did yours. As we continue in God’s Word and learn it more and more, we see more applications, more and more opportunities to serve God with all that we have, continue to see opportunities to love our neighbor. And the more and more we want do it because the more we mature in our Christian faith, the more we understand God’s grace and the more we see what’s most important in life: serving God and focusing on eternal matters. More and more we want to say, “Thank you” to God.

As believers we continually want to grow in our faith and grow in our life of faith. Our attitude is not, “I’ve reached my goal, God better be content with where I’m at, I’ve made certain concessions with the devil to commit these certain sins and so God you better learn to deal with it.” That’s not the attitude of the believer! The believer wants to grow, wants to improve, wants to find more ways to serve God, wants to get better. The attitude of the believer is one that wants to do the very best for God, I owe God my very best efforts, I want my life to conform to the life of Christ.

So, we’re already perfect. In Jesus we’re perfect. But as long as we are on this earth, we will continue to need to be “made holy.” We’ll continue to need God to keep teaching us, strengthening us, growing our desire to serve him, growing our motivation, so that we have more and more unselfish love for God and others. God’s goal is that we live perfectly! Like Jesus!

But, even with our very best we won’t be perfect. That’s why we need to go back again and again to the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross and look at the empty tomb to be assured that we are forgiven, that God has made us perfect forever, that God’s ultimate goal has already been accomplished – our salvation.

And so we come back to that question.  Our best – is it good enough for God?  In regards to your salvation, no way!  Not even close!  That’s why Jesus came – because we needed to be saved!

But now, knowing that you’re saved, knowing that Jesus has washed you clean, now you want to do your best to serve your God!  You’re going to do your best!  And in wonderful grace, God accepts that as wonderful worship, worship coming from one of His dearly loved children.

And so we thank God!  We thank God that He gave HIS Best, sending Jesus to save us.  We thank God for the amazing status which we now enjoy – God regards you as perfect!  He sees you as perfect!  And so we thank God with our lips and lives, serving Him with our best.  And we thank God yet again, that He accepts those acts of worship.  Wow.  What a gracious God we have!  Amen.

Enjoy Christ’s Kingdom Now!

13th Sunday after Pentecost
Revelation 20:1-6

To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His own blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father, to Him be glory forever and ever, Amen! In the name of Jesus, who came once to save us and will come again on the Last Day to take all His people to His eternal, heavenly kingdom, dear friends in Christ,

Are you ready? Joseph and Josephine are walking hand in hand in the mall when suddenly Josephine is gone, simply her clothes and jewelry lie sitting on the floor. Horrified, Joseph looks all around, panicked, where’d she go? At the same time, a Delta airline pilot is flying on a routine flight from Minneapolis to Chicago when he looks over and suddenly his co-pilot has disappeared leaving his uniform and headset lying in heap on the chair. He’s absolutely stunned. Dozens of passengers and a flight attendant have disappeared leaving nothing but their clothes and jewelry behind. People are panicking, upset, looking for answers. Dozens of cars on the interstate suddenly become driverless as their drivers simply disappear leaving just their clothes behind, careening out of control causing accidents, chaos, and havoc. The whole world is stunned as millions of people have suddenly disappeared causing all kinds of panic and chaos.  Have you ever heard of such a thing before? Movies and books have been popularized over such a thing and many quote the Bible to defend such a fanciful thing. Are you ready? Will you be ‘left behind’? So, is it true? Will there be a time when suddenly all the believers will simply disappear from the earth because they’ve been raptured away? Will then they return with Jesus after 7 years of tribulation on earth and will there then be a time of great and wonderful things on earth, though imperfect, Christ will rule on the earth, justice will finally triumph, believers will prosper, in Christ’s earthly kingdom that will last exactly 1,000 years before the Last Day?

The word “millennium” literally means “1,000 year period.” Quoting the text that we’re about to discuss, some say that there will be a time when believers in Jesus will suddenly be “raptured” out of this world either before, during, or after a 7 year period of terrible tribulation on earth. Then, after the 7 years, Jesus will return, resurrect some or all believers, and establish a great earthly kingdom from which He will rule on the earth with all believers for an exact period of 1,000 years until the Last Day. It will be an imperfect golden age, most people will be believers, there will be outward prosperity, peace will rule, no more wars.

One of the biggest problems with the idea of a millennial kingdom is how much God’s Word is misinterpreted. A principle of Biblical interpretation is that we take passages in the Bible in the whole context of the Bible. If we’re studying a truth, we look to the clear and basic passages to help us understand and interpret the more difficult passages- just like you wouldn’t use calculus or trigonometry to re-explain the basic concepts of math. We also take the Bible literally- what God says is what God means. When God is speaking literally, we take it literally, likewise, when God is speaking figuratively, we take it figuratively. People who believe in an earthly millennium use the difficult sections of Scripture, like Revelation 20, to try to re-explain the clear and basic passages concerning the Last Days. Sound Biblical interpretation is the other way around. We take the clear, basic sections of Scripture to help us in understanding the more difficult. So, nothing in Revelation is going to contradict the clear teachings of Jesus with regard to the last days.

Well, what about a rapture where believers suddenly disappear from the earth? Doesn’t Jesus even say something like, “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Matt 24:40-41)? Yes, Jesus says that. But the context Jesus is speaking of is the Last Day. On the Last Day there might be very little outward difference between two people, but one who was a believer will go to heaven, the other who was an unbeliever will go to hell.

The one place in Scripture where we find “1,000 years” with regard to the last days is in Revelation 20. Everyone will admit that we’re talking here about a figurative key, a figurative abyss, a figurative chain, and a figurative dragon. In fact, the Bible even tells us that this dragon symbolizes Satan. So, why would we then insist that the “1,000 years” be a literal 1,000 year period of time? 1,000 at John’s time was often the largest number used. The number 10 and multiples of the number 10 in Scripture indicate completeness. So this is representative of a long, but complete and determined amount of time that Satan will be “bound.” Well, what does it mean that Satan is “bound”? The fact that he’s been bound means that he can’t “deceive the nations anymore.” That’s the devil’s whole goal: to deceive. That’s what he did with Adam and Eve in the garden and he continues to do. He deceives people into trusting anything, anything other than in God. But what happened? Jesus came, Jesus lived perfectly, Jesus died on the cross paying for the sins of the world, Jesus rose from the dead as proof that we’re forgiven. That’s the truth! And when that message goes out into the world, people are brought to faith, people are no longer deceived by Satan. So, the more widely and purely that the good news of Jesus is shared, the more Satan is bound. So the “1,000 years” of Satan being bound began with the work of Jesus and will end on the Last Day, it’s a symbol of the entire NT era. And yet, we’re told that at the end, the devil must be released for a short time. Jesus warns us that instead of things getting better before the end, that it’s actually going to get worse. Instead of believers ruling an earthly kingdom with Jesus for 1,000 years, Jesus tells his followers that we’re going to be persecuted, hated, even put to death before the end. There will be more and more false teachers and false prophets who will deceive many. So what’s happening before the end? The gospel won’t be spread as widely and purely and the devil will again be able to deceive nations of people, in other words, he will be let loose for a short time.

Then John sees the souls of those who were beheaded and they were living and reigning with Christ. A Millennialist will say that these are believers ruling with Jesus in an earthly kingdom. But notice he doesn’t see resurrected bodies ruling on earth, but souls. Also, whenever Revelation talks about “thrones” they are always located in heaven. When Scripture talks about believers dying, their souls never die, their bodies die, but their souls go on living with Christ in heaven. That’s the first resurrection. We’re born into this world spiritually dead in sin and when God brings us to faith, He brings us to spiritual life – that’s the first resurrection. The 2nd resurrection would then be on the Last Day when God raises us body and soul to live forever with him. The 2nd death is then being condemned to eternal death.

Neither this text nor any other text in all of Scripture tells us to expect a worldly, outward, physical kingdom of Jesus on this earth. In fact, God tells us to expect just the opposite. We should expect the devil to work harder in deceiving people, we can expect trouble and persecution, we can expect an increase in false teachers, we can expect famine, disease, wars, rumors of wars. But what a comfort for believers! We are mere foreigners and strangers in this world, heaven is our home! Even when believers die, they go on living and reigning with Christ in heaven! In fact, as a believer in Jesus, you live and reign with Christ…right now! The sovereign Ruler of everything listens attentively to all your prayers and answers them. The Almighty Ruler of all promises to work out all things for the eternal good of His people, of you! Jesus has already won the battle! At the cross and empty tomb Jesus defeated Satan, Satan’s head has been crushed, he’s lost the war, Jesus won the victory. We can live with confidence now! We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come again to finally defeat the devil, He already has! And when we are resting in the Word of God and are living by the forgiveness of sins that is ours in the gospel, the devil can harm us none, now!

People who believe in the millennium are looking for a future, earthly kingdom. They miss out on the blessings that are ours in living in God’s kingdom right now and the blessings that will be ours forever in God’s kingdom in heaven. Jesus said very clearly that His kingdom is NOT of this world. The Bible over and over talks about Christians as being foreigners and strangers in this world, our real home is in heaven. So maybe we don’t necessarily believe in a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth, but are we looking for an earthly kingdom? Do we fall into the same trap of setting our minds not on heavenly things, but on earthly things? We do so when we want the perfect house, the perfect job, the perfect car, the perfect vacation, the perfect government, the perfect nation, the perfect spouse, the perfect children, etc. That’s never going to happen. And we can so easily allow ourselves to become frustrated, upset, angry, mad when we don’t get those things that we feel we need in order to have our little earthly kingdom. But the reality is, you will never have the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect spouse, the perfect child. Why? Because not only do each of us have a sinful nature but the world we live in is wrecked by sin and will continue to be until the Last Day when Jesus returns.

Instead of dreaming of an earthly kingdom, God has something way better! He won an eternal kingdom for you and me with His own blood shed on the cross. So we live in this world, we work hard, we want to improve, but we do so as foreigners and strangers, our real home is in heaven.  Millennial ideas encourage people to be earthly minded, to look for a paradise of sorts on this earth. That’s not what God says. Instead of saying the our lives are going to get better the closer we get to Judgment Day, God actually tells us things are going to get worse. Satan is going to be let loose for a short time. Why? Because the world, by and large, will reject the gospel, reject forgiveness, reject what it means to live in forgiveness with a godly life. Let’s not be one of them. Jesus told us that anyone who wants to follow Him must deny Himself and take up His cross and follow Him. Jesus told us that we would experience trouble in this world. But instead of letting us have a defeatist mentality, God’s given us all we need to stand up under it until the end when we will trade in the cross of this life for the crown in the life in heaven.

The reality is: you don’t have to wait to enjoy some future millennial kingdom. Jesus didn’t come to win a political kingdom on earth, He came to win our souls from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we can have political peace on earth someday, He came to give us the real peace of the forgiveness of our sins as we live under Him in His spiritual, real Kingdom of grace right now. We already now enjoy the joy and peace in the unsearchable riches of Christ…right now! God’s Word says that you live and reign with Christ now and will continue to in life eternal. Right now God guides all things for your best. Right now God listens and answers your prayers in His master governing of the universe. Right now because you have God’s Word the devil must flee from you.

So, are you ready? There won’t be a sudden disappearance of people, there won’t be a rapture, there won’t be an outward, earthly kingdom that Jesus is going to rule for 1,000 years. No, Jesus rules right now, He’s guiding all things in order to bring the most amount of people to faith in Him as their Savior. He rules a spiritual and eternal kingdom. You’re part of it, right now! And one day, the Last Day, He will return to take you the perfect kingdom of heaven where you will continue to live and reign with Christ forever. Amen.

Why you want to worship

12th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 10:19-31

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his own blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father, to him be glory forever and ever, Amen. In the name of Jesus, who allows us to gather before Him in worship, dear friends in Christ, Proskynesis is the ancient Persian practice of bowing down or prostrating oneself before someone of a higher social standing. If you lived in the 300s BC and were to enter the court of Alexander the Great, he adopted this practice so you’d be expected to get down on your hands and knees before him to show your respect for his position. Today if you are in the military, and you come into the presence of another officer, it is expected that you raise your hand to your head to salute that fellow soldier. If you want to greet the Queen of England in the traditional way, for men you bow your neck and for women you curtsey. We have many different traditions and expectations when we come into the presence of someone else, especially someone of a higher social ranking. But the common theme in all of them is a show of respect.

Well, what is worship? What does it mean to go to a church worship service? Is it a time for me to sing songs that I like? A time to catch up with people whom we haven’t seen for a week? A time to be entertained for an hour? A time for me to learn something new? Going to worship at church is arguably the one thing that a congregation does that affects the most people regularly every week. Why do you come to worship? Is it because you feel you HAVE to? Is it because you are afraid that God is going to be angry with you if you don’t? Is it because it’s good for the kids to get a little religion and sweat in a hard pew for a little while? Do I come to church to put in my one hour with God a week so that I can spend the rest of the week doing what I want to be doing? Why do you come to worship? And here’s the question that we’re focusing on: Can someone still be a good Christian even if he/she chooses NOT to worship at church? The survey showed that over half of you said, “Yes, someone can be a good Christian even if he/she doesn’t worship at church.”

Finally, worship is God’s people coming together to come into the presence of God. Just like falling down to the ground before someone else, saluting someone, or bowing the neck before someone is all about respect, so is worship. The most common words used for worship in the OT and the NT mean literally to fall down on your face before someone else out of awe and respect. So, worshipping God means to “fall down” so-to-speak before Him out of awe and respect for who He is and what He’s done. The problem is that our sinful nature likes to think that everything is about us. We have such a twisted sinful nature that it even thinks that going to church is all about us!! “I need to be entertained.” “I need to be served.” “I want things MY way.” “Why didn’t we sing the hymn that I like.” And then there’s the always famous…”I don’t get anything out of worship.” But the reality is, you’re not really supposed to. It’s not about you or me, it’s about GOD!  Worship is for ME to come before GOD and fall down before HIM out of awe and respect. That’s what’s particularly different between worship and Bible Study. Bible study is specifically GOD feeding ME with His Word. Worship is ME falling down before GOD out of awe and respect. Even the word “worship” in English comes from the old English “worthscripe,” which means to ascribe worth to someone or something.  Worship is then pointing out that God is worthy of our praise.

And so how is it that we praise and glorify God? How does God want to be praised? He wants to be praised by proclaiming the gospel in Word and Sacrament. He wants the Gospel – good news about His love for us in Jesus – to be the heart and center of our worship to Him. And what happens when the gospel is proclaimed clearly and purely in the reading of the Word and when the Gospel is administered through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  God is at work! God is using His means to work and strengthen the faith of His people. So, while worship is all about US falling down before GOD, to focus on Him, in incredible grace He’s present to fill our hearts with His love and His grace.

And that’s how God wants His people to view worship. We come into the King’s throne room, the very presence of God Himself. Who should we focus on? Should we focus on the preacher? Should we focus on the hymns? Should we focus on hair dew of so and so? Should we focus on us and what WE want? No, we focus on God. And that shapes the way we view worship. Do we want it to look like a heavy metal rock band concert? Do we want it to be like self-help group? No. We come before God with reverence and awe. We light candles, we hang banners, we follow a worship order, we focus on the Word of God, we sing hymns that focus our attention on God and what He’s done for us, we sing with the voices God has given us. In a sense it is a two way conversation between us and God.

Our text approaches such worship from both a positive angle and a negative angle. First, God gives the motivation. Why can we worship God? “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” Remember, the tabernacle and the temple set up? There was the room called the “Holy Place” and then there was another room called the “Most Holy Place.” The “Most Holy Place” was where the ark of the covenant was and where God wanted His people to view as the place where God was. As cool of a symbol as it was to know that God was among you, separating the holy place from the Most Holy Place was a huge curtain. No one was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place because that’s where “God was.” If someone casually went in there, they would die. In other words, sinful humans have no right to stand in God’s presence.  But what happened? Jesus died on the cross paying for the sins of the world, removing the barrier of sin between God and humanity. And to illustrate that, when Jesus was on the cross that huge curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. “by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Wow! Now because of Jesus we GET to go into the presence of God and worship Him with clean and pure hearts free from guilt and sin. And part of our gathering to worship God is again and again hearing just that: I’m sinful, I deserve to go to hell, but God sent Jesus! Jesus lived for me, died for me, rose for me, Jesus won heaven for me! I’m forgiven! I can come into God’s presence now and I will get to stand in God’s presence forever in heaven! Knowing that, I can’t help but worship God in reverence and awe! I want to worship Him!

God gives maturity, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” If you’ve ever watched a young 16 year old behind the wheel of a car for the first time, you know how swerving can easily happen. However, after a while, with learning and experience, you begin to hold the steering wheel “unswervingly.” Gathering with God’s people around His Word and Sacraments gives you a stronger faith and a firmer grip on life. When the dangers and catastrophes of life come there’s a big difference between the reactions of a believer firmly rooted in God’s Word and someone who isn’t. I need the guidance and insight of others to keep me on the straight track.

God gives mutuality, “And let us consider how we may spur one another one toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” God never intended humans to be isolated entities. God said about the first man, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Not belonging to or attending a church is an unnatural state. It’s like an organ without a body, a sheep without a shepherd, a child without a family. God intended humans to be gathered together and to have fellowship with one another. It’s like your body, if your liver decided to jump out of the body, on its own it would die and the whole body would suffer, each has a place, a purpose, a position. Again, it’s not about me. I have a duty and delight to love and care for others, to have a concern for the eternal welfare of other people, to encourage others, to warn them when they are in danger, to help them when they are struggling, to comfort them when they are hurting. That’s why I want church, I want to gather with fellow believers, it’s part of God’s desire that I love my neighbor as myself.

God also approaches church attendance from a negative angle, He gives us a warning. If we refuse to worship Him, refuse to gather with fellow believers, refuse to hear His Word, deliberately keep on sinning: no sacrifice for sins is left (because we’re rejecting the only one available), only judgement and raging fire, punishment for trampling the Son of God underfoot, treating as unholy the blood that saved us, insulting the Spirit of grace. How do you insult the Holy Spirit? You shut Him out, you refuse to hear Him, you become self-absorbed and don’t care about what God says.  That’s the warning. If I fail to worship God, fail to hear His Word, I put myself in the danger of losing my faith and going to hell.

Finally, does someone have to worship in church to be a Christian? It comes down to a matter of the heart. Why wouldn’t you want to worship God? Yes, there are some people who aren’t able to come to worship usually because of some health problem, but it’s not because they don’t want to. Worship isn’t a “have to” nor is worship about me, it’s about me falling down before my God out of awe and respect for who He is and what He’s done, namely rescuing me by Jesus’ blood. Yes, the entire life of a Christian is worship as I live to give thanks and praise to God. But I also want to be able to formally worship God with fellow believers. I want to formally come into His presence and fall down before Him. I want to grow and mature in my faith as God comes to me with His Word and Sacraments, I want to mutually strengthen and encourage fellow believers in their faith. I want to witness the miracle of another baby being brought into God’s family through baptism, I want to participate and receive Jesus’ own body and blood in the Sacrament, I want to “exhale” as I confess publicly my utter sinfulness and unworthiness, and “inhale” God’s own Word spoken by His representative that I am forgiven. All that happens as I gather with fellow believers in worship.

Worship isn’t about ME. It’s not about my emotions, my feelings, my wants. It’s about God.  And that’s the real beauty of it. So many stay away from church because “it’s boring.” Often that means that worship isn’t emotionally manipulative, it doesn’t tickle my feelings. But that’s actually the beauty of it. God’s forgiveness is an objective reality- it’s true whether we feel it or not. For life in this world we need a faith that doesn’t rest on the shifting sands of our own feelings or personal experiences. We rest on the objective, unchangeable facts of our salvation in Jesus. Jesus died, Jesus rose, Jesus will come again. Week after week after week you hear those facts, that reality, and amazingly, from those facts flow not only strength for life, but a genuine Christian joy and gladness.

And that’s what’s so awesome about worship. You GET to come into God’s presence to worship Him with awe and reverence, and then He comes to you with the unchangeable facts of His grace, and the result is you’re strengthened and motivated to live life for Him and for others. Amen.

You are Acquitted!

11th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 3:9-26

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, It’s a constitutional right every United States citizen has: “Nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The news story read, “Getting away with Murder.” In 2004 Isaac Turnbaugh was acquitted of the charge of murdering a coworker. However, 7 years later he admitted to committing the crime. But the law says there is nothing the courts can do about it. Why? Because you cannot be tried for the same crime twice. In other words, the law wants the prosecutor to give his best shot at it first and in a way is more interested in finality of the case than the ultimate truth. It’s called double jeopardy. So, when you’re acquitted of a crime, you’re really acquitted. In some cases we might argue that’s not fair, that’s not right, but that’s the law. And for the most part, the law does serve justice. If you are acquitted of a crime, in the eyes of the law you stand innocent. When we think of the word “justify” in Scripture we need to think of such a courtroom setting.

The book of Romans sets up such a court room scene. God is the Ultimate Judge and is seated in the Judge’s seat. You and I and all humanity are lined up one after another as defendants. And then there’s the prosecutor who’s ready, has piles of evidence to bring forward. Romans chapter 1 through halfway through chapter 3 is all the evidence. He starts with Gentiles in general and points out flagrant sins of gross idolatry and then homosexuality and then we move on to a depraved mind, they are filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful, they invent ways of doing evil, disobeying their parents, they call evil good and good evil, then he moves on to the Jews (who had the Bible) they have the Bible, but do they follow it perfectly? Do they keep God’s law in every point? What’s the answer? No. “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” Every person is sinful.

You want evidence? “No one is righteous, not even one, no one understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; no one who does good, not even one.” No one does what is right, no one does what is good, no one understands. When God looks at you and me lost in our sins this is the word that He comes up with: worthless. Sometimes you’ll hear someone say, “I’m a pretty good person, I try to do what is right, I do a lot of good things, God ought to let me into heaven when I die.” Evaluate that idea compared with what God says here. No one does good, ALL have turned away. This includes everyone, this includes the pope, Mother Theresa, you, me, every single person born of a sinful father and a sinful mother. Worthless.

And the prosecutor says, “Want more evidence?” Here you go: “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” You open your mouth and out comes the smell of death, rotting and decaying flesh! Words of disrespect, cursing, and filthy which no Listerine or soap is going to wash out. Our tongues continually use lies to deceive, trick, cheat, and mislead.  The words that you and I use hurt and cut and cause worse pain than a rattlesnake bite. The evidence is quite clear: God says, “I know what you say about God and other people, the cutting and biting, rarely do you use words to build up and encourage, rather you use your words to cut down, say bad things about other people, gossip, complain, deride, etc.

And the prosecutor says, “Want more evidence?” Here you go: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Instead of kindness and care and concern, all you do spill blood, hurt and harm, leaving destruction in your wake. It’s the attitude of “I’m more important than you, my needs matter more than yours, move it or lose it.” You see it in marriages, you see it in children, maybe I won’t hit someone, but I sure know how to make life miserable for others. And why? No fear of God. When your worldview is corrupt, everything else is corrupt. You just don’t care about what God’s holy will for your life is. You just live as if there is no God watching every move, every thought, every word and He has a burning hot anger against sin, each and every sin. All sin, every sin has to be punished and you and I deserve that punishment.

That’s the evidence, that’s the situation. It’s absolutely bleak. “So that every mouth may be silence and the whole world held accountable to God.” What’s the first thing we want to do if someone says to us, “You’re a lousy, good-for-nothing, worthless sinner”? You want to open your mouth and defend yourself. But the law sticks a sock in your mouth. I have no case, no defense, no loophole, no plea deal. Everyone in the world stands guilty before God’s judgment throne.

But then, what happens? The evidence has all been brought forward. And it’s time for God, the Judge, to read the sentence. There we stand awaiting the clear verdict of guilty and we know the sentence: eternal death in the fires of hell. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known…this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Wait a minute! What just happened?? God has declared you and me…NOT guilty, innocent! That’s what justification means. It’s a verdict of acquittal before God’s judgment seat. It’s a declaratory act from God. It’s a change of our status before God’s judgment seat.  If God justifies, we can’t be accused any more. It is not a change inside of us, it is a change in how we are viewed from the outside. But wait! How is that possible? God is absolutely just, He can’t simply sweep our sins under the rug and forget about them, our sins have to be punished! That’s true! God doesn’t leave one sin unpunished. God does punish the sins of every single person. But He did so in one place, on the cross, there on the cross every sinner died, every sin of every single person was paid in full, Jesus – the God-man – died for sins of the entire human race.

Because Jesus did that, God has declared everyone innocent of their sins. This is called “universal” or “objective” justification. The sins of all people are forgiven. In fact, a person’s sins are forgiven whether he believes it or not. “All have sinned…all are justified freely by his grace.” How do you know you are justified? Because Jesus died and Jesus rose from the dead, all sins have been forgiven therefore you are acquitted, forgiven.

Well, what’s so significant about this? Everyone in the world is trying to find peace, trying to calm a guilty conscience that knows that it has offended a perfect and holy God. The devil comes up with all kinds of tricks in order appease the conscience but none work eternally. Atheism that denies God’s existence will not evade God’s wrath, materialism that tries to find peace in the things of this life won’t evade God’s wrath, Pharisaism which thinks that human effort or living a good life can appease God’s wrath won’t evade it. There is only one answer and it’s justification. And that peace isn’t even found in the fact that I have faith, that I believe.  Some people think that God is willing to forgive but only after someone is sorry and believes it. People say, “Have faith, then God will forgive you.” Those are nice words, but they’re in the wrong order. God has already forgiven everyone when His Son died on the cross. But that message of forgiveness comes to us through words. When someone hears that God has justified him, declared him not guilty because of Christ, one of two things will happen. Either the message will work faith in that person’s heart to believe it or that person will reject it by unbelief and miss out on all the blessing that the message promises. If you don’t believe the message, you won’t receive its peace, comfort, or hope. But that doesn’t make the message true or untrue. There will be many people who although their sins were forgiven by Jesus, end up going to hell. But that’s not God’s fault. God has forgiven the sins of the world. If someone goes to hell, the fault is all his for rejecting God’s verdict of acquittal.

If forgiveness were dependent on faith in the sense that God does not forgive until we believe, we would always have to be sure that we are believers before we would be sure that we are forgiven. We may not see how dangerous that is until one of those moments of temptation and doubt comes to us and we’re not really sure we are believers. In such a time we will have no place to go unless we can say, ‘God has told me that in Christ he has forgiven the sins of the world. My faith or my unbelief will neither make God’s word true or untrue. He does not lie. He justifies the ungodly. Even if I am the most ungodly, the most wicked man on earth, I know that he has justified and forgiven me. To that promise I will cling, even if my heart tells me that I am without faith, without love, without hope. I know that God is greater than my heart and knows all things. God who does not lie says, “All have sinned…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” I know without a doubt that includes me!

It is this doctrine of Justification that is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. It’s the doctrine on which your faith stands or falls. It’s the doctrine that gives you a sure foundation for faith. It’s the doctrine that gives you the only source of peace in this sinful world. In Christ, God has declared you innocent, He has acquitted you from all your sins. And just think, if God’s done that for you, how important are you in His eyes? If God is willing to send His own Son to pay the price to declare you innocent, will He not then keep His promise to be with you always? To guide all things of your life according to His plan? To victoriously take you to heaven one day? Absolutely!

You know, if you’ve ever watched a court scene where a defendant is receiving the verdict, many times the defendant is nervous, scared, anxious. Then the verdict is read: Not guilty. Then you can just see the relief and joy that comes over such a person. Just think, you’ve been acquitted from not just a sentence of life in prison or the death sentence, but a sentence that would have led you to eternal death in hell! Instead, you’ve been given eternal life in heaven! Talk about relief, joy, peace! Talk about a thankful heart and respect for God’s holy will! Rejoice! Justification means you are acquitted by God! And with God there is no double jeopardy, when He acquits you, you are acquitted. Amen.

“By raising [Christ] from the dead, [God] absolved him from our sins which had been imputed to him, and therefore he also absolved us in him that Christ’s resurrection might thus be the cause and the proof and the completion of our justification” (Johann Gerhard)

You’re a Miracle!

10th Sunday after Pentecost
Ephesians 2:1-9

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Dear fellow redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, when was the last time that you saw a miracle? It was Friday, February 22nd 1980 in Lake Placid, New York. The United States Olympic hockey team was made up of amateurs and collegiates. The Russian Soviet Union team was not only made up of pretty much professional hockey players (they were part of the army, but were paid to play hockey) but they had also won the gold medal in 6 out of the last 7 Olympic hockey games. A few days earlier the Americans played the Soviet Union in an exhibition game and were crushed 10-3. A day before the Olympic game a columnist for the New York Times said, “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in 1960, the Russians are expected to easily with the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.” Well, the game got underway. The Americans were behind for the first period and the second period, but then with ten minutes left in the game they took the lead. As the clocked ticked further and further down the Russian team attacked and fought ferociously. The crowd started chanting the countdown and then Al Michaels, the sportscaster, made his famous call, “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!!!” Unbelievable. It became known as the miracle on ice and led to the United States winning the Olympic gold medal. National pride soared. Chants of USA were heard everywhere. It was a sports miracle.

But that doesn’t even close in comparison to the miracles that I see sitting before me today. What is a miracle? The dictionary defines a miracle as, “an effect or an extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” A true miracle is something that happens only by God’s divine intervention. And that is true about everyone who has faith in Jesus as their Savior. It is only a result of divine intervention.

Our text for this morning tells us, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” Did you catch that? Let’s think about those words for a little bit. This is the natural human condition of everyone born into this world by a sinful father and sinful mother: Dead. Dead. We don’t really like to hear that, do we? And the Bible is very clear on this point. Ever since the fall into sin, how are human beings described? “Sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5), “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3), “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Every inclination of the thoughts of the heart is only evil all the time (Gen. 6:5). In other words, we’re dead. By nature we’re objects of wrath. Born into this world we inherited sin, we weren’t neutral, we didn’t have any good in us.

Sometimes I really wish “dead” didn’t mean “dead”, I wish it meant “badly injured” or “less than perfect” or “slightly below average.”  But the word “dead” as every dictionary is going to describe it is dead, lifeless, breathless, deceased, a corpse.  And the one word God uses to describe human beings born into this world is…dead.  Where people in the world see the great goodness of people, human ingenuity, God sees dead things, lifeless corpses which are fit only for rotting and decaying.  Human beings are born into this world spiritually dead.  We inherited this spiritual death from the very same parents from whom we inherited our physical life.  This is called original sin.  And it is from this original sin, this sinful human nature we were born with that oozes out all kinds of rotten, filthy, disgusting sins: Greed, envy, anger, jealousy, impure thoughts, hatred, cruelty, unkindness, selfishness, etc.  It is vitally important that we get this straight.

Why?  Because how much power does a dead corpse have in helping itself?  Let’s say you and I were going for a drive.  At some point, if you’re driving around here, what are you going to see? Road kill.  Well, let’s say we’re driving and here in the middle of the road is a dead deer.  I pull the car over and get out and walk up to the dead deer.  And I say, “Mr. Deer, you are an awful road hazard, please move off the road, please roll over a couple of times and get out of the way, just crawl several feet.”  And…nothing, no movement, no twitching, no sound, not even a little kick of the leg to show me that he’s looking for a little help…he’s dead!  A dead thing can’t do anything!

So here’s the problem. If someone comes up to you and says, “You just have to give your life over to Christ, make your decision for Jesus, if you’d like to begin a relationship with Jesus, just say this prayer right now, invite Jesus into your heart.” All of that sounds so nice and good, but it’s as effective as telling something that is dead to do something.

When it comes to coming to faith and conversion, there are two main false teachings. One originated by a man named John Calvin and another by a man named Jacob Arminius. Both tried to answer the question, “Why are some saved and not others?” John Calvin essentially said that it’s all in God. If you’re going to heaven, it’s because the Sovereign God has declared it and likewise, if you’re going to hell it’s because God has decided that too. So, that makes God no longer all-good and wanting all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Jacob Arminius said that’s a terrible thing to say that God has chosen some people to go to hell. So he said it’s all in you and me. It’s up to us to decide whether we go to heaven or to hell, it’s up to us to decide whether we should believe or not. But that totally denies the truth we just talked about, that on our own we’re dead, incapable of doing anything good and that makes faith in part OUR work instead of God’s gift through the power of the Gospel. And think about the effects of thinking that faith is YOUR decision. It will lead to either pride because at least I made the right decision or lead to despair, “am I really a believer? Did I really make the right decision? If I really did, then why do I still have temptations and doubts? Maybe I didn’t! Maybe I’m not a believer! I can mess up a lot of things in life and if faith was up to me and my decision, I can mess that up too!

But that’s what makes the truth of God’s Word so comforting. If I am going to hell, it’s ALL my fault for rejecting the grace of God. But if I’m going to heaven, it’s ALL to God’s credit and His glory –from Him sending His own Son Jesus to rescue me to using His gospel to work faith into my heart to believe it.  “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For 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.”

God intervened, God chose you, God worked a miracle!  God came to you, using the Word and the sacraments, and God worked faith in your hearts.  In so, God took you from spiritual death, to spiritual life!  God took you from the road to hell and put you onto the road to heaven!  God took you from being His enemy to being His friend, even more, His child!  And so you, dear friend, are a walking miracle!  GOD took you from spiritual death to spiritual life!  That makes you to be an amazing person who is the object of God’s amazing love!

And so can we understand why we want and need to stand firmly on this truth?  Those who say “it’s up to you to decide to believe in Jesus, you have to make your decision for Christ,” those people deny that God is working the miracle!  Those people deny, therefore, that YOU are a miracle!  Are you okay with that?!?  No way!  No way we can be okay with that!

In short, God says, “I worked a miracle!  That miracle is you!  I brought you from spiritual death to spiritual life!  That you believe in Jesus as your Savior, that you believe that your sins are forgiven because Jesus died for you, that you believe that Jesus rose from the dead – it’s due to the miracle of my grace!”  Do you and I want to give that up?  No way!

Think about what this means for your life. Since your salvation is completed by God from beginning to end, you have incredible peace with God, it’s not contingent upon you to do your thing, it’s not contingent upon your decision, it’s been done and given to you by God Himself: peace. It also gives us certainty in life. Think about it, if faith were up to me, if my assurance of having faith and believing came from being able to pin point an exact time and experience that I had, I would be focusing the basis for my faith not on God, but on me, and I’m a sinner full of sins and doubts and questions. But faith isn’t based on me and what I have done, it’s based on God and His promises. Am I a sinner? Did Jesus die to pay for my sins? Yes! God’s promise is because of that I’m going to heaven. It’s not based on me, on my decision, or what I’ve done or haven’t done. It’s God’s doing! It’s God’s miracle! I can live with certainty!

I’m going to guess that later today you’re going to take a look in the mirror.  What will you see?  Yes, you’ll see yourself, I get that.  But if you think about it deeply, what will you see?  You’ll see a miracle!  Why so?  Because you’ll see a believer in Jesus in that mirror.  That believer in Jesus is you!  And the fact that you believe in Jesus – that’s a miracle worked by God!

This week, live with peace and live with certainty for your salvation, even your faith, is a gift from God!  Amen.

God gives you…Himself!

8th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Corinthians 10 and 11

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, Jack Wurm was walking along the shore of a beach on the California Coast. He was thinking about his life and all of his troubles and was almost penniless. When something caught his eye. It was a bottle with a letter rolled up inside of it. Intrigued, he smashed the bottle and read the note, it read: “I Daisy Alexander do hereby will my entire estate to the lucky person who finds this note and to my attorney Barry Cohen. Share and share alike.” At first he was about to throw the note away as nonsense, but he folded it up and stuck in his coat. Sometime later he asked a friend who was a lawyer about the note. He was afraid people would think him to be a fool if he actually believed it and looked into it. But his friend said, “You’d be a bigger fool if you don’t check it out.” He did investigate it, it took him to the highest courts of the US, the evidence showed clearly that this Daisy Alexander was real, that she lived in London, and was an heiress of the Singer sewing fortune. She had made a separate will put it in a bottle and dropped it in the Thames river. It took 11.5 years but ended up in the place where Jack Wurm found it. He inherited 6 million dollars and $80,000 per year of company stock. Jack could have thrown the message away, rejected it as foolish, and remained a relatively poor man. But since he sought the evidence and investigated the matter, that which first appeared foolish turned out to be a remarkable reality and a great reward.

Now that story is probably nothing more than an urban legend and not really true, but it does illustrate a valid point: That which might first appear foolish can with some investigation turn out to be a remarkable reality and a great reward. And how fitting that is when we think about the Lord’s Supper and what the Lord’s Supper really is. Usually twice a month here at St. Mark’s we set aside a portion of our Sunday morning worship service where everyone who has had opportunity to learn what we believe and teach at St. Mark’s and has confessed their unity in faith with us by officially joining our congregation comes forward and receives a little wafer of bread and a sip of wine. On the outward appearance it may look so foolish- why use up so much time? Why eat and drink when it doesn’t come close to satisfying physical hunger or thirst? It seems so silly and foolish. And yet, if we don’t investigate what this exactly is, not only will we be bigger fools, but we’ll also miss out on a remarkable reality and a rich reward.

We can tell very clearly from the gospel account of Jesus’ institution what it is that we receive in the Lord’s Supper, but the blessings are so awesome that God wants us to be sure. Here in 1 Corinthians we are given yet again another description of what we’re receiving in the Supper. The congregation in Corinth, Greece to whom Paul first wrote the letter of Corinthians had a bunch of problems. One of the problems that they had concerned an abuse of the Lord’s Supper. They didn’t have to do this, but they celebrated the Lord’s Supper at the same time as they celebrated a larger fellowship meal. They didn’t have large churches with fellowship halls to host large gatherings. Rather, they usually gathered at a member’s house. Typically, the wealthier members of the church were the ones to host the gathering. Well, what seemed to happen was the wealthier member who hosted the fellowship meal was a little troubled thinking about how much his bill was going to be if he hosted this meal week after week after week. So, this attitude started to permeate the congregation, “I’ll provide for myself and the other wealthier people, but the poor people can provide for themselves.” So the rich, in order to save money for themselves, ate in the dining room, while the poor were forced to eat outside in the porticos. So the poor people came for Christian love and were forced to bring their own meager food and were shamed.

That selfish attitude is completely contradictory to what is going on in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is not something to be treated lightly because of the awesome reality of what it is and the incredible blessing that it gives us. What Jesus says when He instituted the Lord’s Supper and what God says through Paul in 1 Corinthians can be understood only if there is something far greater going on in the Lord’s Supper than a mere representation or sign or symbol of Jesus’ body and blood.

First of all, there is the need for clarity in what we’re told about the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted it on the night He was betrayed, Maundy Thursday, within hours He would be dying on the cross. And Jesus wants to give His disciples and all His people something before He leaves them. This wasn’t the time for jokes, this wasn’t the time to speak in figurative language, this wasn’t the time to make confusing statements. Jesus says very clearly, “This IS my body…this IS my blood.” In fact, it’s so serious a thing, that we’re told that taking it in an unworthy manner – that is, refusing to repent of some sin or not recognizing that it is Jesus’ body and blood – will result in eating and drinking harm on oneself.

Next, consider the person who instituted the Lord’s Supper. If this was any ordinary human being speaking the words, “This is my body,” we would have reason to doubt it, consider that person a deceiver, and reject the simple, plain meaning of the words. But this isn’t just any ordinary person! This is Jesus! This is the Son of God! This is the one who is the essence of truth itself, this is the one who has infinite wisdom and infinite power to back up what he says and make His body and blood truly present! And Jesus has the power to be present in many different ways. It’s not His general presence in the fact that Jesus is present everywhere, nor is it Jesus’ special presence as He promises to be with us always, He has a very special presence- a sacramental presence where Jesus’ own body and blood are truly present in, with, and under bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Yes, we can’t explain it, yes it goes beyond science, yes it is miraculous and supernatural, but Jesus can do that.

And finally, notice what God says in 1 Corinthians 10:16, the sacramental bread is a “joint partaking” of Christ’s body and the sacramental cup is a “joint partaking” of His blood. Notice it isn’t just a “joint partaking” of Christ, like we enjoy a special spiritual connection with Jesus, but rather, it is a joint partaking of body and blood. Jesus’ body and blood are present together with the bread and the wine in an incredible way.

Well, why is it so important for us to recognize this? It’s because we are so unworthy. The reality is, each of us has an overwhelming need of forgiveness. The path that we live on isn’t a straight down the middle road, rather, we hover at the brink of a ditch on either side. At many times we’re on the brink of becoming self-righteous Pharisees, thinking that we’re doing fine in life, forgiveness, God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, we know they’re there, but we don’t really need them. We’re doing fine on our own. God can take the back seat for a while. How eager were we to hear God’s Word this morning? How eager are we to crack open our Bibles during the week? How eager are we to receive the Lord’s Supper? If we don’t have an overwhelming sense that we NEED forgiveness and NEED the Supper, it’s because we have a spiritual disease deadening us to our true spiritual condition – a dangerous place to be! Then we spend the other times of our life on the other side of the road hovering over the ditch of despair. “Could God really forgive me for what I’ve done?” “If God really forgives me, why does the horror of my past sins still haunt me?” “Will I really go to heaven when I die?”

Then there’s the devil. Martin Luther said, “The devil is a liar, to lead the heart astray from God’s Word and to blind it so that you cannot feel your distress or come to Christ. He is a murderer, who cannot bear to see you live on single hour. If you could see how many knives, darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you, you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible.”

So, the reality is: we desperately NEED the Lord’s Supper. When we come to the Lord’s Supper, we receive not just bread and wine, but we also receive Jesus’ body and blood. How it happens? We don’t know. When exactly it happens.?We don’t know. That it happens- that we know for sure, because Jesus says so. So as you partake in the Supper, yes you’re really eating bread, yes, you’re really drinking wine, but in a miraculous way, you’re also receiving the true body and blood of Jesus Himself. That’s amazing!

Just think, what if this morning instead of handing out bread and wine, we’d distribute 1 million dollar checks to every person who comes up. The checks are yours, they’re real. How would people react? Do you think any one would miss next time? But what’s worth more? A million dollars or the body and blood of God? It’s obvious! What price could we put on Jesus’ body and blood? It’s priceless! And God gives his true body and blood to whom? To you! “Take and eat this is my body given for YOU! This is my blood shed for YOU!” God Himself is willing to give you Himself! And all for what? Your forgiveness. So you can touch, taste, see, hear your forgiveness personally and individually. With the Supper He sweeps away any doubts about His love for us, for if He is willing to give you Himself, His true body and blood, then there’s nothing he won’t do for you!

And that’s why it’s so crucial to understand and hold on to this truth – the truth that we really do receive Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament. It’s not just a symbol, it’s not just a sign, it’s not just a representation. Rather, there’s a remarkable reality and a rich reward in the Supper. In it God gives you confidence. You don’t face life thinking, “I hope I’ll go to heave someday.” Rather, God wants you to humble, yet confidently say, “I know I’m going to heaven.” I have Jesus’ body and blood given to me in the Sacrament all for my forgiveness.

Jack Wurm might have got a large sum of money for looking into a note he found in a bottle. But you get a far greater reward every time you receive the Lord’s Supper for in it, God gives you…Himself! Amen.

God’s Law is Beautiful!

7th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 7:1-3, 8:3-4

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, “No pain, no gain.” Ever heard that before? It seems like most good things in life come only through some kind of hurt and pain, don’t they? For example, I try to exercise at least 4 times a week. There will be days when I’ll just absolutely dread it, put it off if I can, come up with every reason in the book why I should skip it for the day, claim that I’m just too busy, I think about running and the work involved, the sweat, the fatigue, the tiring, the heavy breathing, and I just don’t want to do it. It’s a struggle. In fact, sometimes I think the only reason why I exercise is because I’m part of a coaching group and I have a personal coach who holds me accountable for a number of different things including taking care of my body physically and if I don’t exercise I know he’s going to call me out and get on my case, so…I do it. But interestingly there hasn’t been one time when I get done exercising that I regret it. The hard work, the sweat, the pain was worth it. No pain, no gain. Right? The same is true with different medical things. I’ve visited quite a few people in the hospital who have had some kind of joint replacement. There’s a ton of pain involved and usually the therapists have them up and walking or using the joint the very next day, it’s not easy, it’s painful, but the reward? Hopefully eventually a working joint without the pain.

No pain, no gain. That’s true for a lot of things in life. In a way that’s also true about God’s law. Throughout the Bible there are two main teachings, they’re found in the OT and in the NT. It’s the law and the gospel. The law is everything in the Bible where God makes a demand of us and tells us to do something. The law also tells us that God hates sin and God hates those who sin. It also says that those who sin deserve punishment and eternal death. The gospel, on the other hand, is totally different. The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” The gospel never says anything about “doing” rather the gospel says, “Done! It’s all been done!” Instead of making demands the gospel GIVES. The gospel says, “God loves the world so that He gave His one and only Son so that we might have eternal life.” And if God loves the world then God also loves me.

But both the law and the gospel are good and both serve a proper function. The law hurts. The law causes pain. It hurts us because it shows us clearly just how sinful we really are. Notice what verse 7 and following says, “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intend to bring life actually brought death.” Do you catch the logic? I can look at one of God’s commands like the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder.” And think, “I’ve kept that one. I’ve never murdered anyone.” But then God comes along and says, “Do not covet.” That forces me to take things deeper. That forces me to see that God isn’t just interested in my outward activity or my outward appearance. God looks right at my heart and right into my mind. God judges my thoughts, my motives, my intentions, my desires. And now I have to rethink that 5th commandment. Maybe I haven’t actually murdered anyone…but…have I wanted to, even for just a quick moment? Have I always thought kindly about others? Have I ever wished ill on anyone? Have I always shown perfect love to…everyone?

And now, if I’m honest with myself, I’m spiritually spinning out of control, for I haven’t come close to keeping the true nature of the 5th commandment! I AM a murderer in God’s sight and God says very clearly that no murderer will inherit eternal life! (1 John 3:15) And every aspect of the law does that to us. Think about the first and greatest commandment: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. If you really kept that commandment, you would always be thinking about God, you would never have one doubting thought, God would always be your number one priority, your decisions would be always based on what would God want me to do, you would never let money, stuff, job, things, people, family come before your relationship with God, you would always be thinking about God and His love for you. What about the 4th commandment? Always honoring and respecting those in authority over you. Never once bad mouthing someone in government, always praying for those in positions of leadership, always paying taxes with a joyful heart. What about the sixth commandment? Never once having a lustful thought, perfectly helping others with their marriage, perfectly caring and love your spouse, never being selfish. Ouch! God’s law deals not just with our outward actions, but with our thoughts, our attitudes, our desires, our motives, our intentions. God’s demand is perfection and we’ve failed and it hurts.

From time to time you hear something like, “I sure hope I don’t die while I’m sinning.” If you think that, you really don’t know what sin really is. Of course you’re going to die while you’re sinning. All of us fall far short of what we ought to be all the time. You see, the law doesn’t just tell us what NOT to do or be, it also tells us what we SHOULD do and be. Not being and not doing what we ought to is also a sin. The law demands perfection. If you’re not perfect, you’re living in sin. The reality is, we’re sinning all the time because we’re failing to be what God demands all the time. And that’s what Paul says, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” It brings death because each of us fails to keep God’s commands all the time, in other words, each of us deserves nothing but death and hell forever.

And that’s what makes the law so important. It forces you and me to see my complete and desperate need for a cure. In other words, the law drives me to Jesus, to Jesus’ cross, where I see the full horror of the law’s curse – there in the body of Christ sin is being punished fully and completely. But there is the gospel! There is the beauty of God’s love. At the cross, God is NOT punishing me! God is taking MY punishment upon HIMSELF! Salvation has nothing to do with ME coming to GOD, but God comes to me in wonderful love, mercy, grace. He GIVES me forgiveness. He tells me everything has been DONE for my salvation. My sins have been paid in full. So, I’m constantly sinning because I’m failing to be perfect all the time, but at the same time I’m constantly forgiven because of Jesus. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” But if the law hadn’t struck me first, I would never be ready to hear about a cure, never be ready for that wonderful good news of the gospel. So, the law is beautiful for it leads me to Jesus!

I think sometimes we get the wrong idea of what repentance means. Sometimes people will say, “I hope that I have a chance to repent before I die.” That’s not right. Really, the whole life of a believer is to be one of repentance. That doesn’t mean that you feel bad all the time and believing doesn’t mean that you feel good all the time. Repenting simply means knowing that you’re a sinner who deserves to go to hell and believing that Jesus forgives you all the time, every minute of every day you’re forgiven. Sometimes people think that we have to enumerate all of our sins in order to be truly repentant. But the truth is, repentance simply means knowing you’re a sinner and trusting Jesus died to pay for your sins.  And living in repentance it changes our whole attitude about the law.

Here is where the first part of our text is so important. Paul uses the example of a marriage. The law of marriage ends at death. If a man is still living and his wife goes to be with another man, that’s adultery. However, if the man dies, then his wife is free to marry another man. Death brings about the end of the law. Similarly, “you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” In other words, we’ve been set free from the law. You don’t HAVE to obey any law. Keeping God’s laws or not keeping God’s laws isn’t going to get you one inch closer to heaven. God has set us free from slavery to the law. “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” God has set us free. You see, you don’t HAVE to follow God’s laws. Christ followed them for you. But here’s what happens: when we see how desperate we were in our sins and how God graciously rescued us, we want to serve God in a new way, out of thanks for His grace and love to us.

And so, God’s law becomes beautiful to us. Because as I live according to God’s law, God brings blessings to me.  Let’s think about the 7th Commandment, you shall not steal.  Can you imagine how different life would be if everyone obeyed the 7th Commandment?  You would never need to lock your house, or your car, or your locker, or anything else, because no one would ever steal.  In fact, you wouldn’t even need locks on anything! If you wouldn’t need locks, you also wouldn’t need keys.  Can you imagine how nice it would be to never have to wonder where you put your keys?!? J   And you’d be able to lay down your wallet anywhere, and you could give access to your accounts to anyone, and you wouldn’t have to have encryption technology on the internet, etc, etc, etc.  Wow!  Life would be really great if everyone obeyed just the 7th commandment!

And that’s true for all the rest of God’s laws.  When I fear, love and trust in God above all things, my life gets better, for I’m focused on God and the eternal blessings He’s won for me!  That will allow me to keep the things of this life in perspective, will allow me to make it through good times and bad times with an even keel, etc.  When I love my fellow man as I love myself, my life gets better, for my relationships will be stronger, and I’ll be putting the best construction on all things and therefore will have more contentment, etc., etc.  And so the law is beautiful!  For it guides me to have a real life, a life which works!

No pain, no gain. Sometimes I feel like just quitting exercising. It hurts! But when I’m done I see it was all worth it. We might like to quit hearing the law, to quit hearing that God is holy, that He demands holiness, and that we’re sinners.  It hurts.  But, it’s sure worth it!  For the law leads me back to Jesus and His forgiving love; it guides me in living in a way which actually works.  So we agree – God’s law – it’s a beautiful thing!  Amen.