Monday, August 31, 2020

The End Is In Sight

 Isaiah 29:17-24

Is it not yet just a little while before Lebanon will be turned into a fertile field, and the fertile field will be considered as a forest?  And on that day the deaf shall hear words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.  The afflicted also shall increase their gladness in the LORD, and the needy of mankind shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.  For the ruthless will come to an end, and the scorner will be finished, indeed all who are intent on doing evil will be cut off; who cause a person to be indicted by a word, and ensnare him who adjudicates at the gate, and defraud the one in the right with meaningless arguments.  Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob, "Jacob shall not now be ashamed, nor shall his face now turn pale; but when he sees his children, the work of My hands, in his midst, they will sanctify My name; indeed, they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.  And those who err in mind will know the truth, and those who criticize will accept instruction."

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Trinity         8/30/20

The End Is in Sight

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our world today is rocked with scandals.  Our political leaders have lied, cheated, stolen and made themselves rich and many people much poorer.  During this extended pandemic pseudo-crisis some people have lost their retirements.  Some have lost their life savings.  Some have lost their jobs.  And it seems that it was all so that a political party could force an election to go their way.  This situation has been exacerbated by the coming election.  The public media has abandoned its role as watchdog, of keeping us informed of the misbehavior of public officials.  It has become part of the problem instead of protectors of the people.

What a painful and clear object lesson on the corruption of this present world, and the total depravity of man.  Isaiah didn't know it at the time, but he was speaking about just such men and political entities and fraudulent media corporations when he prophesied the words of our text, this morning.  And those words are words of comfort because they tell us that the end is in sight.  And that is our theme, this morning: The End Is In Sight.

Of course, these people aren't the only ones Isaiah was addressing.  He was addressing all sorts of evil people.  Listen to the words he uses:  For the ruthless will come to an end, and the scorner will be finished, indeed all who are intent on doing evil will be cut off; who cause a person to be indicted by a word, and ensnare him who adjudicates at the gate, and defraud the one in the right with meaningless arguments.  The targets here are all those who take advantage of the little guy, of the innocent.  God has a word of judgment for those who abuse the righteous.  And that word is, the end is in sight.

The end of all the pains, the end of all the frustrations, is in sight.  Is it not yet just a little while?  God says it is almost here.   And on that day the deaf shall hear words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.  The afflicted also shall increase their gladness in the LORD, and the needy of mankind shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.  

Actually, that day is here!  We were the deaf - and we have heard the words of a book – the Bible!  We were blind, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that a natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit because you need to have the Spirit to understand.  And what do we say when comprehension dawns?  "Oh, I see!"  We are the blind mentioned in this text.  The gloom and darkness is the gloom of sin and the darkness of our condemnation for our sins and evil.  When the Holy Spirit comes, He enlightens us with the light of the Gospel and of faith, and we see the goodness of the Lord and of salvation, and we rejoice.

We are also the afflicted.  We are afflicted by the devil, the world and our flesh.  They entice us to sin, and they punish us for holiness, and ridicule us for faith, and persecute us for Christ's sake and for His name.  We are those whose gladness is increased in the Lord.  We are gladdened by the forgiveness of our sins, and gladdened by the hope of everlasting life.

After all, what can the world do to us, really?  The world can make us hurt now, and the world can kill us.  While we suffer now, we can look forward to the hope of the resurrection where there is no more pain and sorrow.  Almost anything can better be endured when we see that the end is in sight.  Besides this truth, God also promises to strengthen us and help us to endure and bear up.  And if the world should do its worst to us, and kill us, it merely hurries us on toward heaven!  As Paul said in Philippians 1:21, For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

We are not just looking forward to that day of salvation and everlasting joy.  It is already the day of which Isaiah prophesied, God was telling us already eight centuries before Christ that it was just a little while.  The end is in sight.

It has to be in sight, because the very end of the world began already, on Good Friday.  When Jesus died, He ended the old world, and destroyed sins and death.  That was Judgment Day!  God judged your sins – and mine – and punished them.  He poured out His wrath on Jesus.  And Jesus pours out His love and forgiveness, and everlasting life on us.  We take hold of it by faith, and we look forward to the fullness of it, knowing that the end is in sight!

Those evil people who take advantage of others and abuse others will be dealt with by God.  That is part of our joy!  The power of those who do evil will be gone, and God will settle with them in justice.  They will come to an end and be finished entirely, just as Isaiah says.  But even now, we know that the end is coming.  We can see it in the Word and hear it in God's good news, proclaimed to us by His will.  We can feel it in the wounded spirit of our age.

God guarantees it!  He speaks through Isaiah about how He will teach, "And those who err in mind will know the truth, and those who criticize will accept instruction."  It isn't by accident, and it isn't by chance.  It is by the work and plan of the Lord. God finds a way.  He pushes each of us through the door.  We are not gathered here by chance, but by design.  It is the work of God.

He says so in our text.  He says that His people are "the work of His hands."  Each one of us has been chosen by God, called by name in our Baptism, and kept by Him for eternal life.  When we stop and consider what God has done to call us and gather us and keep us, we will sanctify His name, as Isaiah says, and stand in awe of the God of Israel.  He has made the things happen that we needed to happen.  He paid for our sins, and then caused the Gospel to be preached to us.  Some of us were carried into the church as infants, and some of us have come the long way around, but God has claimed each one of us.  It is His handiwork, and it is awe inspiring and praiseworthy and we thank Him.

And we know that the end, which began the day that Jesus died, is almost come to completion.  Jesus pointed to that in Luke 21:28,  "But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Some of us here may yet be alive in this world when Jesus calls all things to an end and raises the bodies of all people from their graves.  It will be a wonderful and terrifying day.  For those who rise to be with Jesus, it will be wonderful beyond all telling.  For those who stand on His left, and hear Jesus speak those four most horrible words in all of human history, "I Never Knew You!" it will be a day of unmatched and unimaginable terror - a terror that will never end.

And the end is in sight.  God is going to end the power of evil men and women to hurt us.  He is going to silence the liars.  He is going to stop the ruthless evil.  He is going to end the power of the wicked to defraud and cheat us.  And He will show the true joy of the Lord to His redeemed.  That is what the Bible says.  That is what we confess.  The end is in sight!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Choice We Must Face

 Genesis 4:6-7
. . .  So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.  Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it." . . .

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity       8/23/20

The Choice We Must Face

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the more familiar accounts in the Bible.  I think I have heard it preached about more often than any other Old Testament text.  Usually, the sermon focuses on the question Cain asks the Lord, "Am I my brother's keeper?"  I have never heard that question analyzed in a sermon for its sarcasm or its open disrespect for God.  It is always answered in the light of social ministry commitments that we should have toward those among us who are in need.  The answer to Cain's question is invariably "YES!"

But Cain's question actually insults his brother – the brother whose sacrifice was pleasing to God while Cain's own was not.  "Am I my brother's keeper?"  The question also dismisses God as though He were a household servant of no importance.  It is like those times when we dismiss someone who asks us where a neighbor or troublesome relative has gone by saying "It is not my day to watch him".  Most significantly, however, these words are a part of Cain's answer to the challenge of evil which God encouraged him to resist and master.  Cain, as we all know, failed to master the temptation.  But the challenge of the temptation stands before every one of us daily.  It is, in the words of our sermon title today, the choice we must face.

Cain was angry.  He was angry with God and angry with his brother.  He had just experienced the most colossal put down.  He had been snubbed by God.  The Bible doesn't tell us why God preferred Abel's offering.  It hints at it a little, I think.  Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground - of his labors, but Abel brought of the firstlings – the first born of his flocks – and he brought of the fat portions – the very best of the best!  There is a stewardship message in here somewhere  –  –  –  about giving God the first and the best rather than the left-overs and "what you can spare at the end of the month," but I am not going to go there.  You are all grown-ups, and mostly long-term Christians, and if you haven't figured that out yet, you probably won't learn it today anyhow.  Besides, some of you might think that I am trying to pick your pockets and that all I am interested in about you is your money.

Cain's offering reflected his heart.  He gave the offering out of a sense of duty, I imagine, rather than it being the gift of love for God and heart-felt thanksgiving for God's goodness to him, as Abel appeared to have done.  He gave it the perfunctory ‘umph', and then he got irritated when it was received by God as perfunctory and not as the open-hearted gift of the true child of God.  You see, God knows!  He can tell straight off.  And Cain got angry - not jealous.  The Bible tells us he was angry!  He was angry at God for seeing the truth and not pretending that Cain was something he didn't even really care to be, and angry at Abel for being holy, and being perceived by God as holy.  Abel was the first "goody-two-shoes".  And he paid an awful price for his brother's anger.

Cain was like those people who want to call themselves "Christian" but don't want to take the time or expend the effort to actually be Christian.  This is the man or woman who doesn't bother with Church, but is "just as good a Christian as you are."  Or, he was like those people who belong to a church that no longer preaches the Word of God clearly or faithfully, and yet they get really irritated by us, and our focus on the truth, and our practice of closed communion.  They know they should be where the Word is preached in all its truth and purity, but they don't bother.  It seems to be easier to just despise those who cling to God's Word and call them "Holier-than-thou," than it is to actually do what they know they ought to do.

The choice that Cain faced was the choice of wallowing in his anger and feeling sorry for himself and continuing to stand in the path of temptation, or to see his sin as sin, resist the temptations, and put to death the deeds of the body, as St. Paul describes it in Romans 8:13.  "Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry?  And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be lifted up?  And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.'"

God asked Cain the question even though He knew the answer.  He wanted Cain to think about it, and to take control of himself and exercise some self-discipline, and do what it right.  What He said to Cain, in effect, was, "If you do what is right and good and holy, you will be accepted too.  I haven't rejected you completely.  I just made the point that what Abel did was done the way it ought to be done, and from the right heart and attitude.  So do what is holy and good and I will accept you, too.  But if you sit and stew, sin is lying in wait to take you down and destroy you.  The devil as marked you as a target and is stalking you like prey!  You must take control and master this temptation!"

We don't face God's immediate approval or rejection, as Cain did.  God doesn't generally deal with people that way any longer.  It would be kind of cool if He did.  Then we would know if we were faithful or not, or if we made the right choice in that last temptation or not.  We could all tell if we were all sincere Christians or if someone was a hypocrite.  We would have no need for any debate about closed communion, because we could all see who should and who should not stand the altar and receive the treasures offered there.  But that is not the way it works today.  We walk by faith, not by sight.  We must walk in the light of God's Word, even when we cannot see its truth.

But we each face the choice that Cain faced.  We face the choice of wallowing in our feelings and emotions, our needs and the temptations that the devil throws at us, or we can stand up, by the power which God gives us in Jesus Christ, and do what is right and good and holy.  The Bible gives us some ideas on how to handle this temptation.  It seems to suggest here that we should not allow ourselves to wallow in anger or jealousy.  We should simply apply ourselves to doing what we know is right – forgiving, doing the things that God gives us to do, rather than savoring our hurts and our angers and our sense that we deserve more - or better - or faster - or greater respect - or more influence - or whatever it is that we are being eaten up by at the moment of temptation.  The Bible tells us to flee from lust and temptation, and to decline to join in when sinners entice us.  It tells us to turn to God in prayer in our hour of trial.

Of course, we fail.  We have the same problem that Cain had.  We are sinful people.  We like the feeling of anger.  We are titillated and tantalized by temptation.  We respect ourselves, and, generally, not much else.  Others need to listen to us.  Others need to cater to us.  You can see this tendency, which resides in every one of us, most easily in those individuals who say the cruelest things about others and expect them to take it in stride, and to consider it to be humor or somehow appropriate comments even when they know that it is not.  But if anyone questions them, or says anything - even things not intended to be critical - they fall apart, they complain about being attacked, and they cry about how everyone treats them!

Sin has set its desire on us.  And sin works on us, if we are not diligent and deliberately holy in what we do and say and even in what we allow ourselves to think.  I have seen people who were life-long Christians, and active in their churches, suddenly stop going to church – even disavow the Christian faith – over some imagined hurt, or because their personal sin became an obsession and their guilt drove them away from the church.  Sometimes it was anger.  Sometimes they just suddenly became "too wise" for the church.  Now and then it was just that they lost their faith.

Sin works on us by luring us deeper and deeper in until we cannot stand anything holy – or until we feel so ashamed of ourselves that we cannot believe that God would still forgive us.  We have sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, so often with the same sin that we know that if we were God, we would not forgive us – and so we begin to doubt God's grace and forgiveness, and that is unbelief – or we decide that our sins are nothing and that we are just fine, and we don't really repent – and that is also unbelief.  In one case sin has torn us from the faith, and we know it.  In the other case, sin has seduced us away from the faith, and we still imagine that we are God's faithful children.  We simply ignore the evidence to the contrary and make believe.

But Jesus does forgive – He has paid for all of our sins, and He has forgiven us every one.  He paid the price – "the soul that sins - it shall die!"  He died already - not as Abel died by the violence of Cain's sin, but willingly, for us.  He bore our sins to the cross and now He forgives us.  He also feeds us with His own body and blood to strengthen us for the fight, because we still must face the same choice bested Cain.  Sin still has us in his sights.  The Word of God to Cain is still fitting for us.  If you do what is holy, you will be lifted up – and if you do not do what is holy, sin is crouching at your door, and its desire is for you - but you must master it.

Jesus has taken your sin away, and nailed it to the tree of the cross.  Your sins have been forgiven!  The apostle Paul writes in Romans 6, "For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.  Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts,  and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace."

The choice that we must face is the choice of being content in sin and complacent in the face of temptation, or the choice of putting to death the deeds of the body and being wholly and deliberately Christian, and putting all our hope and confidence in Jesus and His salvation.  Even though we do not believe in decision theology - because we know that the unregenerate man cannot choose to come to God– we do know that once you are in Christ, by His power you have the choice of living in faith or, by your own power, living in sin.  Cain chose one way.  We see the tragic results.   By the power of God in you, choose to fight sin and temptation, and walk in the grace and love - and comfort - of God, for Christ's sake.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The New Normal


 The New Normal

It has been almost seven months.  The authoritarian usurpation of our rights was supposed to end at two weeks: “two weeks to flatten the curve.”  As we approach another school year, no one can say with certainty what that year will look like or how the student will be educated.  Among the most irritating phrases to arise and settle into common parlance is the phrase, “The New Normal.”  It is the way the Media has taken to describe changes in our society that none of us voted for or hoped for, and many of us wish to see ended.  Rioting, protests, masks, isolation, and life by dictatorial decree have come to mark our new normal.

The one thing that should not have changed, and has not for some of us is our faith and our worship.  But some have left the congregation and not returned.  Each one that withdrew from participation in public worship among us likely had their own reason.  Whatever that reason was, the time to return is here.

The need for worship within the fellowship of the congregation is like so many things in the Christian faith, not immediately apparent.  One may stay away from worship for a time and feel no different and not really have a sense of missing anything.  It isn’t immediately sensed, but it leaves a mark on the individual’s heart and mind.  Some people notice it first when they try to return to worship.  They may sense a reluctance to return or an impatience with worship.  Others feel no need, either having decided that worship is not a good use of their time or having a sense that they are doing just fine without the regular encouragement of worship among the communion of saints.

The first problem is that the absence from worship strengthens our flesh in the natural but false theology that faith and worship are things that we work up in ourselves and are a product of our own efforts and piety.  God creates and sustains faith in us through Word and Sacrament, but our sinful nature tells us that it is our choice and our effort that counts, that makes it happen.  When we remove ourselves from public worship, we remove ourselves from the sphere of God’s influence and lock ourselves into the realm of the persuasion of the flesh.  Simply put, we give the flesh all the time to influence us and shut God out.

This is not deliberate nor does it seem that way to us.  We intend to keep God and His Word uppermost in our hearts and minds, but like all good intentions, life happens and we frequently find ourselves skipping devotions and abbreviating our prayers.  Life pressures us and we cut corners without expecting it to be a regular thing until it is.  We also invent our own piety and worship.  The church worship service drags us where we do not intend to go in terms of which Word of God we consider, what hymns we sing, what we actually pray about, and how the Word of God is applied to us.  Self-directed worship takes us where we want to go and tells us what we want to hear and are willing to endure, thus catering to our flesh more and our true spiritual needs less.  Congregational worship also surrounds us with both the encouragement of the saints and the need to accommodate those “others” that may make us uncomfortable or impatient.  Private worship and devotion do not join our hearts and voices with the fellowship of believers for encouragement, and it does not drag on – thereby disciplining our flesh – for a moment longer than we are comfortable.

Self-directed and private worship also deprives one of the Lord’s Supper.  Even when it is done with the best of intentions, private, self-communion, does not deliver us the Sacrament.  Aside from the fact that communion means a sharing together in something, which doesn’t happen privately, it tempts the individual with the notion that there is nothing special about the Lord’s Supper, nothing given or received apart from the elements.  The realities we share in worship are not to be had apart from the Church and her fellowship, and although we have no sense of it, our spirit suffers from the lack of the blessed gifts or the Holy Meal.

In some cases, prolonged absence from the “gathering together of ourselves,” as Hebrews 10:25 puts it, leads people to seek out other fellowships. They often will do so on the basis of how these other fellowships appeal to one’s flesh rather than on the basis of their clear grounding in the Word of God.  Of course, there may be other fellowships sharing the same foundation in the Word of God and the Sacraments, but the congregation that loses its members during times of crisis like the Pandemic will be poorer for the loss.

The new normal for every congregation will be how these changes shake themselves out.  God will sustain His people and will sustain each congregation according to His will.  His will for His children is clear, that they remain in the faith, strengthened by Word and Sacrament, and serving one another in the grace and love of God.  That is also the prayer of the congregation for each of its members, whether they finally return to us or choose to move on to another congregation.  If that should happen, we hope and pray that they are led to a faithful congregation, which would be a Lutheran congregation.

The new normal of our lives in America appears to be heading toward a time of escalating persecution of the Church.  Every Christian needs to be prepared for this eventuality.  That preparation includes a firm grounding in the Word of God, understanding the Gospel for what it promises and what it does not promise.  Preparations should also include surrounding each other with a faithful community of believers to shield and encourage one another in the face of the challenges that will arise.  To that end, we gather for worship, and to receive the gifts of God with the goal of being prepared, wearing the full armor of the people of God.  We also gather in our Bible Studies to study God’s Word and talk about the challenges we face in living out our confession of Christ as we confront the new normal of our society.

For us Christians, there really is no new normal, just the same old normal of the love of Christ for us, and the hostility of the world toward Christ and all that is His, and our abiding need for Word and Sacrament and the fellowship of the saints.  If you have been regularly coming to worship these past months, thank you!  If not, we invite you and welcome you to return.  Come, let us reason together.

Yours in the Lord,

Pastor Fish

Monday, August 17, 2020

Empty Words


Jeremiah 7:1-7

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, "Stand in the gate of the LORD'S house and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah, who enter by these gates to worship the LORD!'" Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'  For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever."

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Trinity                                              8/16/20

Empty Words

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In Acts 19, Luke relates the account of some Jewish exorcists who were jealous of the blessings which God had bestowed on Paul.  Paul was working wonderful miracles, even people who were touched by handkerchiefs Paul had handled were being healed of their illnesses.  Those who were not Christians, but thought that they had the right to God's power and blessings were trying to take advantage of Paul and what He was doing – not understanding that the power was real and that the power was not in Paul, but in God.  The Bible says, and let me read you a couple of verses:

But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, "I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches."  And seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this.  And the evil spirit answered and said to them, "I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?"  And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

I share this account with you as an example of what our text is speaking about, this morning.  Jeremiah is speaking the word of God to the people of God, telling them that God can tell the difference between the truth and a lie, between sincerity and hypocrisy.  God warns those who would be His people not to indulge in self-deception and place their trust in anything but Him alone.   The priests in our account from Acts did not know God, and did not believe in Jesus, but they tried to claim the "something" that was there anyhow, and when they spoke in their unbelief, their words were without any real authority or power.   They spoke ‘empty words'.  Our theme, this morning, is "Empty Words".

Let me begin by reading the verses just following our text.  It will save a lot explaining.  "Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and cry, 'Deliver us!'-- that you may do all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it," declares the LORD.

They were used to calling on God when it was convenient and when they had a need, and ignoring God when things were good.  They used His house for whatever purpose struck their fancy -- even when it was a purpose for which He had expressly forbidden the use of His house.  They ignored Him in their daily lives, and even in their worship, and did the very things He had commanded them not to do.  They acted as if He did not exist, or He could not see them, until they got in over their heads, and real trouble came a-calling, and then they were all pious and called on God.  When the prophets warned them of the dangers of what they were doing, they would hide behind who they were - or who they were supposed to be – and the fact that they had the temple of God among them.

God's message to them was simple and abrupt:   "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'"

The words of the people of God who did not live as the people of God, nor honor His covenant, words they intended to use to identify them as God's people and expressing their certainty that they were under some sort of divine protection, were empty words.  They were empty because there was nothing behind them.  Oh, God was real.  His love for them was real.  His power was real, and His house was real.  It was His people and their faith in Him that was not real.  They were leaning on a covenant with God which they freely ignored and violated.

Oh, they said they were Jews.  They say it today.  They claimed to be God's people.  But they did not live it out.  They worshiped other Gods.  They did evil.  They treated one another and foreigners in ways expressly forbidden by God.  They did not live as the people of the covenant.  They refused to be holy, and yet they assumed that they had God all tied up and boxed in and that He was going to have to take care of them and rescue them.  They were trusting in deceptive words, empty words, because they were merely pretending to be God's people but living out something quite different.

The Word of God, here, underscores the truth that what you believe determines what you do, and, on the other hand, that what you do and how you behave, reveals what truly is in your heart.  Holy people do holy things.  God's people walk in the light of His will.  Those who refuse to do so, demonstrate that they are not holy nor God's people.  And anything they might say to the contrary is just empty words.

The application of this word to our lives would seem pretty clear.  We don't want to be the sort of people who rest their comfort and hopes on empty words.  There are a lot of those sorts of people around today.  They talk about being Christian, but they do not let God's Word change their lives or how they live them.  They lie to one another and cheat one another, and then go to church on Sunday and claim that they are God's people.  They gossip about others, politic, take advantage of others, manipulate people -- and then call themselves God's Children.  But those are empty words.

Then there are those who want to call themselves Christians without even coming to church.  They miss weeks at a time, sometimes months at a time – some just about never make it to church, and yet, heaven help you if you criticize them or suggest that they are less than faithful.  They want to believe that they receive every blessing of being the child of God without actually being the child of God.

The message here is not about behavior, or church attendance, or religion, really, it is about reality, and about faith, and about what is in you and what is a priority for you.  Too often, people get caught up in debates about religion, and about what they can or cannot do and still be a Christian.  But that is not the point.  The real point is Jesus.

The real focus of our faith is not on what we do, or how we behave.  The real focus is on Jesus, and what He has done.  He has carried our sins to the cross.  He has died an ugly death on an instrument of torture in our place.  He has borne the wrath of God against our sins, so that we might be forgiven.  He has done what needed to be done, and now He pours out forgiveness of sins and life and salvation upon us.  Those riches are received by grace through faith.  So, he that believes and is baptized shall be saved.

The question is, what do you actually believe?  The children of Israel of  Jeremiah's day knew about God.  They knew His name, and they knew His promises.  They had an understanding that God rescued and that God saved.  They even had some sort of expectation about God and the temple and their security in this world.  But they did not believe.  They did not have trust in God in them, or a relationship with God.  They simply knew about Him, and according to legend, that God would do such-and-so for them.

They didn't ask who God was.  They thought they knew, and didn't really think much past that simple point.  They did not ask what God expected from them or wanted from them.  They knew what they expected from Him and they felt a sense of entitlement.  It was like God owed it to them, no matter what.  They didn't ask how God would color their thoughts, shape their values, or alter their behaviors.  The just believed empty words.

How does your life reflect your faith?  Do you stop to consider who God is and what He expects from you?  Or, do you just figure that God owes something to you because you call yourself a Lutheran, and count your blessings as entitlements?  Have you stopped to consider the seriousness of sin?  Look at the price God paid to set you free!  So, do you then casually wander back into sin, as though it really means nothing?  God has to take you any way He finds you, right?  Just like it doesn't matter which church you belong to, or how often you worship, or whether you have any respect or regard for those God sets among you for your teaching and encouragement.

What is it that your life says about God and His place in your life?  Does it say that you know the rich grace of God, and how little you deserve His forgiveness and salvation?  Or, does your life say that you haven't really thought about it?  Are you a Christian, or a pretender?  Are you a Lutheran, or a spiritual epicurean at a smorgasbord of theological traditions?  Are you a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Bartlett Township or are you merely a spectator?  "Member" means "body part."  You are part of it and it is part of you.  We are part of you!

Stop and think.  Your life speaks the truth about you even when your lips do not.

A lot of people call themselves "Christians", but for many it is just an empty word.  It doesn't shape their life.  It is just another band-name label in their wardrobe.  Christians live in connection wit

h Christ.  It means that they cannot live or choose without taking Jesus Christ into account.  Truth is what He tells us it is, and right and wrong are determined by God's clearly revealed will.

"Lutheran" means many things - it means forgiveness from God first, and from us to others second.  It means clear doctrine, not taken for granted, but insisted upon and contended for.  It means the true body and blood of our Lord in the Sacrament.  It means the historic liturgy, and life of the congregation as fundamental to the life of faith of the individual members.  If you are a Lutheran, these truths are precious and vital for you.  If your faith-life is not shaped by these truths and values, then calling yourself a "Lutheran" is just more "empty words".

Ours is an age of sound bites and "image".  Many people allow themselves to get caught up in deceptive words, empty words that suggest something is real, or that they value something when, in fact, they don't.  We have become accustomed to doing without thinking about what we do says about us.  Jeremiah reminds us by the Word of God, that what we do reveals who we are and what we believe.  As John wrote in his first epistle, "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Always a Step Ahead


2 Samuel 22:26-34

"With the kind Thou dost show Thyself kind, with the blameless Thou dost show Thyself blameless; with the pure Thou dost show Thyself pure, and with the perverted Thou dost show Thyself astute.  And Thou dost save an afflicted people; but Thine eyes are on the haughty whom Thou dost abase.
"For Thou art my lamp, O LORD; and the LORD illumines my darkness.  For by Thee I can run upon a troop; by my God I can leap over a wall.  As for God, His way is blameless; the Word of the LORD is tested; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.  For who is God, besides the LORD?  And who is a rock, besides our God?  God is my strong fortress; and He sets the blameless in His way.  He makes my feet like hinds' feet, And sets me on my high places."

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity                        8/09/20

Always a Step Ahead

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

One of life's great frustrations is a conversation with someone who seems to know where you are going and what you are going to say.  My father was like that.  He was always a step ahead of me.  A debate with my father was merely an exercise – he had always thought of everything I was going to say and had an answer.  It was extremely frustrating when I wanted to argue with him, but it was a wonderful resource when I needed counsel or advice.  When I needed his help, having him a step ahead was a great blessing.  I miss him and his wisdom.

God is like that, only more so.  He is always a step ahead.  Our text describes it for us a little.  We want to look at our text this morning for the help and comfort it gives us.  Our theme is, always a step ahead.

Our text is the words of King David near the end of his life, and all of his troubles were behind him.  David is celebrating and praising God.  He is talking about how God works in our lives.

Now let's face it, David did not have an easy life.  He was anointed to be king as a young man, and yet he still had to go and slay Goliath, serve King Saul, and be violently attacked by Saul who was in a foul rage most of the time.  David became a general and led the armies of Saul in important victories for Israel and his reward was then to be hunted for years by Saul, who was jealous of David's victories and popularity.  David had to serve a Philistine king for a time to keep his army together and stay out of the way of the King of Israel.  Even though he was chosen, anointed, and wonderfully blessed by God, David faced threats, challenges, pains, and frustrations for years before he became king.  These were tests by God, tests which David passed with flying colors.

We are also chosen of God and wonderfully blessed.  Does that mean that we will not face troubles, frustrations, sorrows, and other trials and tests?  Absolutely not.  God will put each of us to the test.  We will be tested by temptations.  We will be tested by troubles.  We will be tested by sorrows.  We will be tested by every aspect of life at one time of another.  That is just the way that God works with His people.  Those who are not tested are not God's people.

Understand this, however; God doesn't test us to see what we are made of, or whether or not we believe.  God already knows.  God doesn't test us to see what we will do or what we are capable of.  He knows!  He is the One who makes us capable.  That is what verse thirty in our text is about.  "For by Thee I can run upon a troop; By my God I can leap over a wall."  He knows what we are capable of because He gives us the strength and ability we need to do what He sets before us to do.

God tests us so that we might know!  He puts us to the test so that we might learn about ourselves – and so that we might learn about Him.  He wants us to understand how powerful He is in us through His Word and in our faith.  He wants us to experience and understand how much we can depend on Him, how powerful He is when we cry out to Him, and what He can equip us to do when we are faithful and do the holy things He lays before us to do.  He teaches us the truth of how He deals with us.

When we walk by faith and not by sight, we find God is just as David describes Him.  When we are kind, God is kind to us.  When we are holy in our conduct, God is holy toward us.  When we serve God with our whole heart, God takes care of us and keeps us.  When we trust Him in spite of what we see and hear and feel around us, God comes through in amazing ways.  He shows us what sort of people we are and what sort of people we can be.  He teaches us that what we often don't suspect is true, is true with Him.

We can win by repenting to one another and forgiving one another when there is trouble between us.  It doesn't seem that way.  Human reason says that we can get things handled more efficiently and effectively if we organize and maneuver and manipulate things and people.  The political solutions always seem best.  But when we do things that way, the problem just keeps growing, and repeating itself, and eating away at us.  But when we humble ourselves, and deal in love and forgiveness with one another consistently, and  set aside the sinful ways and things that so appeal to us, we can put the problem to rest.

God tests us with economic troubles to teach us that we can rely on Him. It always seems like there should be something we can do, but God can keep us and feed us in and clothe us in the midst of poverty.  He can also snatch great wealth right out of our hands in an instant – as the our nation's recent convulsions seem to be teaching us daily.

Every situation, every trouble, every temptation is a test.  God knows who you are and what you are capable of.  He knows the blessings and good that He has planned for you.  The point of the test is for you to learn - and to come to know - and believe - and trust God.

Of course, we don't always live up to our faith.  Sometimes we try to massage the situation and end-run God and gain some sort of advantage.  We do things the way we think they are most effectively done or accomplished to personally please us, rather than doing what we know God would have us do.  That is what David referred to in verse 27, "and with the perverted Thou dost show Thyself astute."  

Sometimes, gossip seems to be a good tool.  Sometimes we think we can seize a situation and make it work out right by doing wrong.  Perhaps we withhold ourselves from God and His people.  Maybe we organize a movement to fix a perceived problem.  It might be a family problem, or it might be a church problem, or might be a personal problem.  It doesn't matter.  Every trouble and every problem is an opportunity to be faithful and do what is holy and trust God, or to seize the bull by the horns and make life work the way we want it to, no matter what.

Sometimes the lesson that God wants you to learn is that you are not a good person, or holy in all that you do.  Now and then, God wants you to see yourself in the light of the truth – that you sin, that you do the wrong things, and for selfish reasons.  God wants you to compare your behavior, and your heart, to the standards that He has revealed – so that you can see that you are not always right and good, and so that you might turn to Him for forgiveness and for help and guidance.  After all, "As for God, His way is blameless; The word of the LORD is tested; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him."

And when we turn to God for forgiveness, He is always a step ahead of us.  He has already seen your sins, and punished them!  But you are not bearing the guilt and pain of your sins.  Your sins were carried to the cross by Jesus, and nailed there in His body.  He died in your place, the death which you have earned.  When

He rose from the dead on Easter morning, God was proclaiming that Your sins, whatever they may be, have been punished completely, fully paid for, and forgiven.  To all those who know this wonderful truth, and trust God to be the sort of God He reveals Himself in the Bible to be, and trust God to do all the good things He has promised to do, He gives eternal life and calls them His own children.

Your sins have been forgiven.  He paid for you because He loves you.  He invites you to come to Him and live in His light and see what David saw.  "For who is God, besides the LORD?  And who is a rock, besides our God?  God is my strong fortress; And He sets the blameless in His way.  He makes my feet like hinds' feet, And sets me on my high places."

Who is like our God?!  He makes you holy.  He forgives you, and He sets you on the path of righteousness.  When you fail, He is there to help you, always a step ahead.  He knows your need before you do.  He also sees what you are – and what you are capable of doing - and capable of being as His child, and He challenges you with troubles and temptations and sorrows to cause you to discover how deep and wide His love is and how strong He has made you.  He gives you heaven, and then invites you to live as a citizen of heaven right here on earth.

He doesn't leave you alone to do it, though.  He gives you the church, filled with others who are also His people.  He preaches His living Word to you to teach you and strengthen you.  He continues to forgive you when you sin, and He nourishes you with His own body and blood in this Holy Meal, the Lord's Supper.  He knows what you need before you do, and He is there pouring it out upon you, always a step ahead.

He thinks faster than we can think, and He knows where our troubles are going – and how we can not merely survive, but triumph!  When troubles seem to surround us, God knows, and God is there.  He is your Fortress and your Shield.  He wants you to face the temptations with your faith, trusting Him and doing what is right and holy and good.  He wants you to see that you can do it, and that when you do, He is there to bless you and help you.

As I read through the Bible in my daily devotions, I am always amazed at how the faithful kings of Israel and Judah would see God's rich blessings and how He would even win a war without them having to fight - just stand by and watch God defeat the enemy - and then these same kings would go do something stupid and evil and sinful.  It was always something that showed that they didn't trust God.  The reason they did it was that life was real, and they did not connect the dots – they did not see their next temptation in the light of God's goodness and faithfulness in the face of the last temptation.

Well, we want to see it.  We want to remember that our God is always a step ahead of us.  We cannot out-think Him, outrun Him, out-maneuver Him, or manipulate Him.  We cannot win when we live contrary to faith and we cannot lose if we trust in Him, and walk according to faith and holiness.  Our troubles cannot overwhelm us, if we trust in God.  Our needs cannot outstrip His ability to provide.  The dangers we face cannot destroy us, with God at our side.  Our enemies may be awesome and our troubles terrible, but our God is greater – and He is always a step ahead!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Two Kinds of Religion

Jeremiah 23:16-29

Thus says the LORD of hosts, "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD.  They keep saying to those who despise Me, ‘The LORD has said, "You will have peace"'; and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, ‘Calamity will not come upon you.' 
"But who has stood in the council of the LORD, that he should see and hear His Word?  Who has given heed to His word and listened?  Behold, the storm of the LORD has gone forth in wrath, even a whirling tempest; it will swirl down on the head of the wicked.  The anger of the LORD will not turn back until He has performed and carried out the purposes of His heart; in the last days you will clearly understand it.  I did not send these prophets, but they ran.  I did not speak to them, but they prophesied.  But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds. 
"I am a God who is near," declares the LORD, "And not a God far off.  Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?"  declares the LORD.  "Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?"  declares the LORD.  "I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!'  How long?  Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart,  who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal?   The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth.  What does straw have in common with grain?" declares the LORD.  "Is not My word like fire?"  declares the LORD, "and like a hammer which shatters a rock?"

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Trinity                                              8/02/20

Two Kinds of Religion

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

They had a problem in the days of Jeremiah.  It was the problem of two kinds of religion.  They had those who preached a religion of prosperity and blessing and peace, and then there were those who preached judgment and doom and destruction.  If they had possessed no more information than that, it would not have been a difficult choice.  Who wants to hear gloom and doom?

They had some prophets who were prophesying peace and rescue and the good intentions of God, and others who were preaching the wrath and judgment of God and the condemnation of the sins of the people.  One was a proclamation that was easy to hear, and popular, the other was the Word of God, and difficult to listen to.  In those days, the more difficult message was the true message.  Jeremiah was preaching God's reaction to it all.  Our theme, this morning, is two kinds of religion.

Very simply, the two religions were the true religion and a false religion.  Then, as now, the problem was how to distinguish which message was true.  Which kind of religion is the right kind, the faithful kind?

Yes, we have the same problem today.  We are confronted by two kinds of religion.  One kind is rooted in the Word of God, and the other finds it foundation in the imagination of man.  Both claim to be speaking about God, and both claim to be speaking for God.  One is full of things we often do not want to hear, and the other is comfortable and reasonable and pleasant.  The pleasant one appeals to us.  It is just what we want to hear.  The harsh one is often just the wrong message, in our minds.

The trouble is, we have to distinguish which message is true, and which message is sent to deceive us.  God spoke through Jeremiah to the false prophets of Jeremiah's day.  They were preaching just what the people wanted to hear.  Those were dangerous times.  Judah had never been so weak and threatened, and the people wanted to be comforted.  They wanted to hear that they were still safe, and God was still on their side.  The problem was, that they had abandoned God and the covenant long ago.

The people of Jerusalem were hedonists, looking for comforts and pleasures.  They were worshiping who and how they wanted, with no thought about what was right or good or holy.  When trouble threatened, they knew the name of God, they knew to call out to Him, they just did not know God.  They called on the familiar name, but they no longer knew who it was that was behind the name.  They did not believe in the God who existed.

They were like those people today who believe in "Jesus", but have no real idea who Jesus is, or what belief in Him means.  We believe in Jesus – the same Jesus for whom Christians have laid down their lives confessing the faith, throughout the centuries.  But today, many so-called "Christians" cannot even make it to church regularly.

We confess the Christian hope which transformed western society from pagan and violent to "Christian" and polite and safe, and yet many who call themselves "Christian" today cannot see that it is wrong to abort babies, and who will not allow ‘religion' to determine what is right and good for them, or tell them what to do or not to do.

 We confess a Gospel for which Lutherans died in massive numbers during the Thirty Years War in Europe, rather than surrender their faith, and their doctrines, and their eternal comforts – and today, some "Lutherans" don't want to practice Closed Communion for fear that it will trouble our non-Lutheran visitors.

Holy conduct was the goal during this life of most who confessed Jesus and hoped in Him for everlasting life, and yet today we read that homosexuality is acceptable even for Christians, even for pastors, and some people are comfortable doing things clearly forbidden in God's Word, such as spreading evil tales about others without even knowing if they are true. 

Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," but preachers are condemned today for saying, "Here is the truth, and everything contrary to this is false."  Many people today want to believe that there is no difference of any importance between the different denominations, and some think that all religions lead to the same God and the same eternal destination!  Yet some of these people want to be called "Christians" and "Lutherans."

We face the same fundamental religious situation that Jeremiah addressed.  There are two kinds of religions proclaimed today

–    true religion and false religion,

–    religion built on the Word of God and religion built on the imagination of man

–    the religion of sin and grace, and the religion of "feel comfortable"

–    the religion of "know the truth" and the religion of "whatever you want to believe, it is okay! " 

I would tell you who some of the practitioners of this false religion are, those who Jesus called "wolves in sheep's clothing," but every time I point out where the truth is and where the false doctrine is, someone gets angry.  "Just tell us what we believe," they say, " and don't mention anyone else.  Just speak the truth – and don't criticize others, or error."

Okay.  God's Word is true, and every word of it is important.  And we Lutherans believe every bit of it.  The hard part is that God's Word is not always pleasant.  He condemns sin – and He particularly condemns those who twist His Word, or teach their own thoughts as though they were His.  He calls them "bad trees," and their false teaching "bad fruits".  He tells us clearly that not everyone is going to heaven – not everyone who says they are, and not everyone who thinks they are.  "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven."
And what is the will of God?

The Truth saves, not wishful thinking.  You may have the freedom to believe anything you want as an American — but not as the child of God.  The Child of God is bound to the Word of God!

Look at the difference between the two kinds of religion that God proclaimed through Jeremiah!  I did not send these prophets, but they ran.  I did not speak to them, but they prophesied.  But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds. 

If those prophets had spoken the truth, instead of trying to sound pleasant and be popular, God would have worked through His Word from their mouth and turned His people back and spared them the horrors that befell them in the destruction of Jerusalem.  But a sweet lie was easier – and more acceptable – than the truth.  It was more popular to say what the people wanted to hear than it was to speak the hard truths of God's Word, and so the people perished.

The truth will save.  One truth that you need, just like they did back then, is the truth that you people are not good people.  Your conduct is not holy and God pleasing.  Neither is mine, so forget the idea that I am attacking you, from position of holier-than-thou. 

We all sin.  Our conceit that we are good and right, even while we lie, cheat, gossip, hate, envy, and love ourselves and manipulate others is wrong.  We are sinners.  We do evil.  You do it every time you do anything but show goodness and kindness and love to your neighbors, to your fellow-members of Immanuel Lutheran of Bartlett Township. Anytime you repeat a word of gossip.  Anytime you lie.  Anytime you tell someone that you are not doing the things that you are doing, or that you are doing things that you are not doing, you are playing the hypocrite and acting out sin.  When you put yourself first, and the rest of us – or just some of the rest of us – second, you sin.  I sin.  We all sin!

Does it hurt to hear me say that?  Yeah!  It does!  It hurts like hell – and Jeremiah speaks God's Word to say that His Word is like a fire!  It is supposed to burn!    "Is not My word like fire?"  declares the LORD."  It hurts.  It strikes hard at our proud and sinful hearts and calls us evil and twisted and sinful, just like we are!   "Is not My word like a hammer which shatters a rock?"  You need to know and believe and humbly confess this truth in order to know and understand and believe and rejoice in the other truth – the truth of Jesus Christ and of the forgiveness of sins.

Oh yeah, you can "know" about Jesus without any sense of your sinfulness.  You just cannot understand what it is that God has done, and what He gives to you in Jesus Christ!  Your sins have been punished on the cross!  Jesus died – you should have died – I should have been tortured and put to death – but Jesus was instead!  He paid the price of our sins, and He pours out forgiveness for us freely and richly!

If you think that you are not such a bad person, and I am just engaged in rhetorical excess – then Jesus is probably just a ‘nice guy' for you, and you probably want to hear something to make you feel good and to cheer you up.  But if you see what a deadly and evil thing your sins are, then Jesus has done something remarkable, and fully worthy of your time and attention.  He took your guilt and sin, and gave you eternal life and resurrection from the grave for the future, and peace right now, because you can understand and perceive the love which God has for you!

When Jesus is just that ‘polite Savior' who did ‘nice' things for us, then the truth is not that important -- and we see this reality at work in many churches today.  Salvation is cheap and easy, and it doesn't really matter which denomination you are or which religion you follow.  It is, after all, all the same — unless you have real sins and real guilt.  Then you need a real Savior!  Then you need real forgiveness and comfort that doesn't fade away because someone in a pulpit somewhere challenges your security and peace of mind with something from the Bible.  When you know your sin, then you need a God who is worth dying for – and therefore One who is also worth living for.

"I am a God who is near," declares the LORD, "And not a God far off.  Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?"  declares the LORD.  "Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?"  declares the LORD.  "I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!'  How long?  Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart,  who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal?   The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth.  What does straw have in common with grain?"

The answer to the question God asked, of course, is "Straw and grain have nothing in common."  There are two kinds of religion before us in our text, God's and man's – and they have nothing in common either, in truth.  I don't know about you, but I want the God who is near.  I want the God who has done the hard work of salvation on the cross.  I want the truth, because Jesus said that the truth will make you free. 

I want the truth because I am a real sinner, and I need a real Savior!  I want the religion that is built upon the Word of God, the Word that burns like a fire and crushes like a hammer — and comforts and saves from sin and death and hell. There are two kinds of religion today, just as there were in the days of Jeremiah.  One saves and one just makes you more comfortable on the way to hell. God grant us all the Holy Spirit and faith in Him and His truth.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)