Sunday, May 30, 2021

Baptism - Birth from Above


John 3:1-15

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 05/30/21

Baptism – Birth from Above

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This morning is Trinity Sunday. Normally, the sermon should focus on the doctrine of the Trinity. I am not going to do that today. I am going to preach on the Gospel text, which deals with being "born again" - which is better translated "born from above" – and which is described by Jesus as being "born of water and the Spirit." As to the doctrine of the Trinity, I could not describe it better than the creed which we just spoke together - the Athanasian Creed. What we can say, and what we cannot say about who the Trinity is or how it works is set forth in short order there.

Today we are going to talk about that washing – Baptism. Although our Gospel lesson doesn't state this explicitly, it is taught elsewhere, that this baptism is "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." So, we are baptized in the name of and into connection with the Holy Trinity. This morning, however, I want to talk with you about Baptism, starting with the words of Jesus in our text. Our theme is, "Baptism - Birth from Above".

Our Gospel begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. Nicodemus was identified as "a ruler of the Jews", which indicates that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Israel in those days. He was also a rabbi, a teacher, for Jesus says to Him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?" So Jesus was not speaking with a novice in theology, but a teacher, and clearly He was teaching Nicodemus things that Nicodemus had never even considered before.

Jesus spoke about being born again. The word used there can mean "from above" or "again". We can see how Nicodemus took what Jesus said, at least at first, because He asks about how a man could crawl back up into His mother's womb to be born a second time. That is part of what Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand - but surely not all of it. The common word for the idea "again" in Greek is palin. It is the most commonly used word in the New Testament, used 141 times. The word Jesus used here is the Greek word, anothen, which is used 13 times in Scripture and is translated "again" only three times - and two of them are in this Gospel lesson. Jesus chose that specific word to couple the ideas of a re-birth, and a birth from above.

That is what Baptism is, a second birth, not from the womb, but rather from above. It is a birth by water and by the power and working of the Spirit. Nicodemus was a good Protestant. He could not imagine what Jesus could have meant, and the only way he could think of "birth" was natural birth from the womb of a woman. That seems to have suited Jesus' teaching intention, too. Jesus used natural birth as "born of the flesh", and the birth from above - Baptism - as "born of the Spirit". He teaches us that we are inadequate, as we come from the womb, "to enter (or see) the kingdom of God."

That is the witness of the Scriptures in general, as we have often discussed. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, "But a natural man [the way a person is when they come from the womb - untouched by God in any special way] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." Romans 8:7 says, "because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so". Again, 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us, "Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed'; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit."

The reason we need that birth from above is our spiritual condition as those born of the flesh, Ephesians 2:1, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins." Paul also calls us "Children of wrath, just like the rest" and "dead in your transgressions" before the Spirit "made us alive together with Christ", working life in you by the new birth in Baptism. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 6 when He writes, "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."

These words of Romans 6 also remind us of the reason this birth is called "born again." We are buried with Christ by Baptism into His death - that is we literally die with Christ - spiritually - and are raised, then to a new life, dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, as Romans 6:11 says. This is a real death and a real re-birth to new and everlasting life with Christ. That is why it is worse for a man to fall away once he has tasted the goodness of the Lord. Peter says it is better to never have known than to know and turn away from Christ.

Jesus answers all of the modern objections to the doctrine of the sacramental power of Baptism when He speaks to Nicodemus. Nicodemus cannot fathom how these things can be, and Jesus tells him to simply trust God and know that the Holy Spirit can do far more than he, Nicodemus, can imagine, "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." And Jesus tells Nicodemus this in the context of telling him that you must be born of water and the Spirit.

He even chides Nicodemus, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" If anyone should have been able to understand these things, it should have been Nicodemus. Nevertheless, he did not. What the words of Jesus mean, basically, is that we should not trust our wisdom and powers of reason in matters theological, but trust and depend on the Word of God. What God's Word tells us is true, and it means just what it says, even when it doesn't quite make sense to us.

The word for "Spirit" and the word for "wind" in Greek is the same word. When Jesus describes the wind and says you hear it and see its results, but you don't know where it came from or where it is going, He was describing a common human experience. With modern weather maps and such, people might think they know more about the wind - and they surely do - but the message is really unchanged: just as the wind goes where it goes, without our permission and without our understanding - we simply experience it - so, too, with the Spirit of God.

But Jesus doesn't actually say that. He says, "so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Like the wind, we cannot see the Holy Spirit, but only see some of what He is accomplishing. We cannot always tell what He doing - nor control where He will go next. The Church Growth Movement appears to believe that it can dictate where and when and how the Spirit will move - - - but they are wrong. So, too, we cannot predict who will become a Christian, or who God will use, or how. All we can do is experience what the Spirit is doing, and what He works in those around us.

Some people we think we have made a good wonderful confession to, and they just cannot accept what we say. Another we think we have said everything wrong, and yet they hear the Word, and the Spirit works in them, and they are moved by the Spirit to work powerfully and effectively where the Lord has called them and placed them. It is not under our control, and it is not our work, actually. It is God's

And He promises to work through baptism. All of this, "You don't understand how it works" talk is for Nicodemus, about Baptism. Luther said it this way for us,

"How can water do such great things? It is not the water indeed that does them, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts such Word of God in the water; for without the Word of God, it is just plain water, and not Baptism, but with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and the washing of regeneration and renewing in the Holy Spirit as St. Paul tells us in Titus, chapter three, "He saved us, not by deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit."

Who you are and what you are is the work of God, through your Baptism – and life since then in the Word – and in the Lord's Supper. You didn't make it happen, God did. You are not really in charge of what you will be doing next. You can decide about Bible Study and dinner after service, but God has your life in His plans — and in His hands. Meanwhile, your life in Christ is the plan of the Father, the gift of the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

This birth from above is not the result of a decision you make. It is the gift of God. It is not merely "as if" you were born again, but a truth which we do not perceive with our senses, but hear of only in the Word. In your Baptism, you were clothed with Christ, your sins were washed away, you were made righteous, and given a good conscience towards God through the work of Jesus. These are not merely what we think or how it feels, but truth revealed in God's Word.

This new birth makes you alive to God and dead to sin and promises that sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. It is not a ceremony without power, but the very power of God at work in you to bring you to Christ, and to guide you into holiness of life - both growing and imputed.

And it is the sine-qua-non of the Christian life. Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Without this work of God in you, you cannot be a child of God. Doing it doesn't earn anything, it receives the promise of God. But have no fear - this precious gift is already yours, in your Baptism.

You have been born ‘from above'. Your life is no longer earth centered, but Christ centered. Your family is no longer simply those connected to your flesh by genetics, but those who have been born in Christ by Baptism into this new family, the household of God, as St, Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:19. You are truly children of God in Christ, both by adoption and by new birth from above. Don't ask how it can be, or why you cannot feel it, just know that the Spirit works where He chooses, and He has chosen you, with the outcome that you will have everlasting life in Jesus Christ.

And if it seems hard to comprehend, just think about the Holy Trinity, who works this great thing in us. He is, in His own being, beyond our ability to comprehend - even when He tells us. So, why should we be able to understand all that He is able to do? Just take Jesus' word for it, Baptism is a birth from above.

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

Saturday, May 29, 2021

What Happens When We Die?


What Happens When We Die?

Many people have spent a lot of energy and thought in trying to answer that question.  The simple truth is that the Bible does not speak of death or the nature of death with any precision.  It is the lack of clear, concise and explanatory statements that lead people to make up all sorts of things and claim that their vision of death is valid and legitimate and true.  Most of them are not.

The physical nature of death is what it is, that is what we witness.  The body stops functioning and begins to decay.  From dust you were taken and to dust you shall return.  Most modern people try to slow or stop that decay by embalming.  There are places and religions that do not embalm.  Usually they bury the body quickly (or cremate it) to avoid observing the process of decay.

The cause of death is always sin.  God may occasion the departure from this life by accident, illness, or "natural causes," but death is built in to us by sin - Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death," and Romans 5:12, Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned-" and Romans 8:10, ". . . though the body is dead because of sin. . .."

Christians speak of death as the separation of body and soul.  The body returns to the dust and the soul returns to God who created it, according to Scriptures.  Many people believe that the soul continues to inhabit the body in a sleeping state until the resurrection.  That idea is not Scriptural.  Scripture teaches us that death is the separation of body and soul, although it does not treat it topically, but illustrates it in Luke 12:20, and in connection with Jesus in Matt. 27:50 and John 19:30.  The "sleep of the soul" is contradicted by passages such as Phil. 1:23 or Luke 23:43, where Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he would be with Him in paradise "today."

It is important to note that the Bible says that believers who die go to be with God, or in His hands.  Unbelievers, false believers, and pagans of all sorts go, in the interim between death and the resurrection, to await the resurrection in prison, mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19-20, which is also apparently a place of suffering.

Pagans and those who do not pay close attention to what the Bible says often imagine that those who die become angels.  It is not unusual to hear people answer the question of why someone died by saying, "God needed another angel."  But we are ourselves in the presence of God, not angels.  Becoming an angel is a step down for a child of God, 1 Cor. 6:3 says we shall judge angels, and Hebrew 2:16 says, For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.

The Bible also does not say or suggest that the people who have gone to be with the Lord are aware of us, here in time, or watching over us.  Isaiah 63:16, For Thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us, And Israel does not recognize us. Thou, O LORD, art our Father, Our Redeemer from of old is Thy name.  Ask yourself, how could it be heaven if our loved ones had to watch us sin and struggle down here below?

We know the believers are with the Lord, and the Apostle Paul reminds us (Phil. 1:23) that being with Christ "is far better."  So we can rejoice in their blessedness and comfort ourselves as to their condition and the hope of the reunion with them when it our time to go to be with the Lord.  That is part of "the Christian hope."

Other ideas about the dead, such as ghosts and haunting, are also not taught in Scriptures.  Seeing things we cannot explain often gives rise to fanciful - or spooky - ideas, but we look to the Word of God for answers and when God provide none, we need to school ourselves to avoid making up stories to "answer" our questions and uncertainties.  As the people of God, we follow Him, not our fevered imaginings.

On that day we will be happy to discover that zombies and mummies and the walking dead are silly stories intended to generate a little fear where God has always instructed us to "fear not."

When my mother's mother died many years ago, several of our relatives reported seeing her out and about - but it was always just a passing glimpse at a distance, never a clear sighting and never up close.  I have always understood that when someone we love dies, it is natural for us to expect to see them in the old, familiar places.  We really want to see them as well, and in our grief we may interpret what we are catching a glimpse of as the person we so badly want to see alive.  But our loved ones would surely not tease us and torture us with "I just missed him (or her).  If they wanted to comfort us, and could, they would give us a good look, and would speak more than just a passing word.

The sorrow that accompanies the death of the ones we love is part of the reason death is so feared and referred to as "the enemy" in the Bible.  It is visceral and ugly.  I personally hope God has better things in store in eternal life than making brief, surprise appearances to discomfort my friends when I am gone.

I find the thought that I will go immediately to the presence of our Lord, and enjoy a reunion with those who also have loved Him to be a comfort in the face of the thought of death.  I look forward to seeing and speaking with my parents and grandparents, my close friends who have already gone to be with the Lord, and even people like CFW Walther or Martin Luther.  Perhaps the Lord will permit us to continue to learn and question one another in everlasting life.  We could ask the Apostles what they think about our current theological issues, or sit at the feet of Jesus along with Mary, of Mary and Martha fame, and learn the answers to the why's and the what's we have been puzzled by throughout life.

Then again, when we stand with the Lord all of those questions may just fade into the background to be forgotten in the joy of heaven.

Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish

Monday, May 24, 2021

Loving Jesus


John 14:23-31

Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. You heard that I said to you, I go away, and I will come to you.' If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it comes to pass, that when it comes to pass, you may believe."

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 05/23/21

Loving Jesus

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

All you need is love, or at least that is what John Lennon said. Many Christians talk a lot about loving God and loving Jesus, and by that, they each seem to mean specific things, or they mean to use the concept to induce people to engage in certain courses of action or behavior. They turn loving Jesus into a law and use the desire of the believer to manipulate them and shape their behavior. Certainly, every child of God wants to love Jesus. We have been treated to a lifetime of exhortations to do just that.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus talks about what it means to love Him, and what effect it has. It turns out that loving Jesus is not the same as what so many preach. This morning we will take advantage of the words of Jesus, and see what it means to love Him, according to His definition, and what follows upon that love. Our theme is "Loving Jesus."

First of all, Jesus describes loving Him, He doesn't command how to do it. In this, Jesus is speaking as He did in the Ten Commandments. Jesus does not say, "If you love me, then you must do this and do that." He says, "The one who loves me is the one who is keeping my Word", just as in the Ten Commandments God does not say, "Don't Murder!", or "Don't steal!", but "My people are the sort who simply will not take the life of another, or the personal property of another, or the wife (or husband) of another, and so forth". In other words, Jesus is describing, not commanding. I know that because Jesus knows, as the Scriptures clearly teach, that none of us is capable of obeying the Law by nature, and so commanding us to behave in a certain way is unfruitful. Jesus describes instead.

Loving Jesus means keeping His Word. It doesn't mean that we love Him by keeping His commands, but that we keep His Word as part of loving Him. Now, we can turn it around, and measure our sincerity by looking at our faithfulness to His Word - and even use these words as a motivation of sorts to do what is good and right, but we have to remember that this is not a command, in the sense that we can do it on our own, but as revealing what God would work in us, and help us to understand which way the Lord would lead us. So we need to consider what it means to Keep Jesus' Word.

Keeping His Word, for example, means knowing it. Let's face it, it is difficult to be faithful to something if we do not know what it is. This is the knowledge part of faith - what theologians like to call the "fides quae creditur". You have to possess substance to your faith - the stuff that you believe.

Keeping His Word also means believing it. Once you know what His Word is and what it contains, you must actually believe it - this "believing-ness" is what theologians have called the "fides qua creditur", that is, the faith with which you believe. Luther called this "fiducium cordis", that is, the trust in the heart - the trust that all that you accept as true is true and that all that it means and offers applies to you and that you may depend upon it and act upon it.

It almost goes without saying, then, that Keeping His Word means sound doctrine. You cannot be faithful to Jesus or His Word, His teachings, without being faithful to what He teaches, holding fast to what He said, and what it really means. When you do not care what the truth is you are not keeping His Word. When it is more important to "get along" than confess the faith, you are not keeping His Word. The appeals to the brotherhood of man, and love for another, and uncertainty in the face of the variety of opinions promulgated by the various church groups, for you to be more patient with other doctrines, or for you to be less than clear and assertive with your confession are appeals to you to surrender the Word of Christ, rather than keep it.

Keeping His Word also means living out what it teaches. This is the trust in the heart working its way out in real life. So, Jesus died for your sins, did He? So what!? What does His death mean to your life? What does His love mean to your dealing with other people? What does the forgiveness of your sins mean to how you live, and how you deal with others? What does the gift of eternal life mean - that is, how does it influence your thinking, and your choices, and your approach to life and dangers and sickness, and such things?

You see, if God loves you as deeply as you confess that He does - and you actually believe it - it has to mean something to what you think, and how you respond to life and its pressures. The temptation that the devil wants to stumble you with is the temptation to forget the love of God and fear stuff and worry about what is happening around you, and pull in your horns, so to speak, so as not to draw any attention to yourself or your confession. We confess that God is intimately aware of us - the very hairs on your head are all numbered - and genuinely concerned for our well-being. We are, after all, His chosen and beloved - right?

So what difference does that make in life, in your choices and values, in what you will dare to do and what you will refuse to do? Remember, all of life is theological, and your life between the end of our service and, perhaps, Bible Study, this morning, and the beginning of our service next Sunday, is your worship. No moment in your life is insignificant or dismissible. No decision, however daily and secular' it seems to you is excluded from your life in Christ. Keeping His Word means not just putting a Bible on the coffee table or bedstand, but living all of your life, even the little parts that no one sees, as though you are God's, chosen and precious, forgiven and blessed with everlasting life, and protected by the Creator of all that exists because, as Jesus says, He loves you.

When you love Jesus the way Jesus talks about our loving Him, and not the warm and squishy, feelings' oriented kind of love, certain things will be true. I struggle with how to describe them. First I wanted to say "results", but that makes it seem like quid pro quo - as something we cause to happen, which is not true. I then chose the word "consequence". But the dictionary says that this refers to cause and effect, which is not where I want to go either. What I want to talk about is connected to our loving Jesus, and contemporaneous, but not caused by us or our behavior, since God makes us believe. So I chose the word "accompany" - there are circumstances that Jesus tells us attach to us when we love Him and keep His Word.

The keeping of His Word is accompanied by the love of God for you. Jesus said, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him." It isn't that God doesn't love anyhow, since God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, but when we love Him, He loves us personally, not just in general. He claims us as His own and counts us as special and precious and privileged. His promise to hear our prays and answer each one is an example of this special and personal relationship.

The keeping of His Word is also accompanied by God both the Father and the Son being with you, blessing you, guiding and keeping you (living with you). Jesus says, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; . . . and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him" Wherever Jesus is, there must be all of His blessings and help. We are literally in heaven - except that our sinful flesh cannot perceive it or enjoy it as it should. It is also the will of God that we walk, for a time, by faith and not by experience or sense data. God has a purpose for our time and life here, not the least of which is to confess Him before men and share the hope that is in us. So He tells us what we cannot perceive, namely that He is with us, and not just aware of us, but making His dwelling-place with us and in us.

So, when we love Jesus, we have everything we need. We don't necessarily have everything we might want - but that is also because of our sinful flesh, which desires that which is not good for us, and which lusts after evil - and is incapable of sensing the riches of God which lie about us at every side. So Jesus tells us of His love, of His presence, of our full and free forgiveness because of His cross and suffering. He tells us that we have only to awaken from our graves, on that good day, and we shall live before Him in glory, and not the humility of the flesh which we have today.

And so, the keeping of His Word is also accompanied by peace - "the peace of God which passes all comprehension" - not just human comprehension. This peace comes with faith. It is peace in circumstances that don't warrant peace. It is a peace that comes by the gift of God, not as the result of human reason, or observation. It is the peace of God which God gives, for Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful." We have the gift and the promise of peace, so Jesus tells us not to allow our flesh to be troubled or cause us to be fearful. No, instead we cling to the peace which is our gift by virtue of keeping the Word of Jesus.

The keeping of His Word is also accompanied by rejoicing. How could we not rejoice, if we really and truly believe? Your sins are forgiven. You will live forever. Even the grave cannot change the will of God for you, the plan of God for you, or the love of God for you - you will rise from your tomb fully alive! While you live here, you are promised everything you need, and blessing, and guidance. How could you not rejoice? The only way would be if you did not keep the Word of Jesus.

The one who does not keep the Word of Jesus does not love Him. He or she is, by definition, an unbeliever. Whether they reject the Gospel outright, or try to change it by changing the Word and denying this or that while pretending to hold to the core - they do not believe. If they cannot take Jesus as He presents Himself to us in His Word, they cannot do it because they do not know Him or love Him. If they deny His gifts, they do it because they do not love Jesus. You cannot have Jesus without His Word, just as you cannot have the Father without the Son. The one who does not keep the Word of Jesus does not love Him, and, vice-versa, the one who does not love Jesus cannot keep His Word.

The long and the sort of it is, Loving Jesus means being a Christian - the sort of Christian that is saved by grace through faith, not just the sort that wears the title like a disguise. Some like the name but hate the substance. Some want the sense of religion without having to deal with the reality of it. You can see that in some of the churches that reach for feelings and experiences in their worship, rather than for the Word of Christ, and the confession of the faith. But only in Jesus Christ, in His crucifixion and resurrection, is there salvation. Only in the Word of Jesus is the truth. And only in keeping that Word is it possible to know and love Jesus.

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

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Therefore Pray


John 16:23-28

"Truly, truly, I say to you, if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in My name. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full. These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will speak no more to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father. I came forth from the Father, and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again, and going to the Father."

Sermon for Rogate Sunday 05/09/21

Therefore, Pray!

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

There are few Bible passages that have caused the kind of confusion that our Gospel lesson has. Jesus speaks to His disciples about prayer, and what He says sounds to our ears as if Jesus is giving us the authority to use God like a catalog - you phone in your request and, shazam!, there it is, delivered right to your door. That isn't exactly what Jesus is saying. It is, however, about prayer, and about our relationship with God the Father. Jesus does promise and answer to every prayer, so our theme, this morning, is what the text finally says to us - Therefore, pray!

Part of the problem with misunderstanding the text is the translation we use. It says, "If you ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you." All of the translations tend to sound the same - some use the word "Whatsoever" instead of "anything", but it tends to come across in English as a broad guarantee that we can get anything and everything from God simply by asking.

And we can! The fact that I have to admit that is part of what makes this so difficult to understand for so many people. But Jesus was not promising that we will get everything we can conceivably pray for. That is where the language barrier still stands in our way sometimes. Jesus was not promising that anything we asked would automatically be given as much as He was promising that every prayer would be answered, that God the Father was listening to our prayers, and wanted to hear our prayers, and that we could count of God the Father just as we have counted on Jesus Himself. Jesus was also actually subordinating Himself to the Father.

Remember that Jesus was speaking to His disciples. We are the recipients of the promises, but we were not the original audience. Those disciples were accustomed to Jesus, in the flesh. This text comes in the middle of Jesus warning them that He was going away, and they would not see Him, and their hearts would know sorrow on account of that. These disciples were accustomed to asking things of their Master - and receiving something in response. They were not accustomed to asking for motorized toys, or even candy bars, but when they asked Jesus a question, He answered. When they wanted to eat, they got to eat - now and again they ate miraculously.

Jesus was telling them that when He was gone from among them, they were going to have the same relationship with the Father that they had with Jesus. They would not be praying to Jesus, but to God, and He would deal with them just as they might expect Jesus would. He would answer. Whatever it was that they needed, God the Father would provide. Jesus even made the point that He wasn't going to have to intercede with the Father for them, in order to get what they needed, but the Father Himself would listen and answer their prayers because He loved them!

He loved them because they believed. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father. Jesus takes His place behind the Father - we call that the subordination of the Son to the Father - and God the Father deals with us, just as lovingly and just as intimately as Jesus did with His inner circle of disciples. He loves us because we love Jesus and believe God's Word about Jesus. Praying in Jesus' name doesn't here mean just stapling the name onto our prayer, but praying to God on account of Jesus - because we know what He did and why He did it and what it means for us and about our relationship with the Father. It is, in other words, a prayer that flows from a heart of faith.

Jesus tells us these things for our comfort and our peace of mind. Life is not going to be comfortable at all times, and we will be tempted to despair. Jesus tells us of the Father's love for us so that we will be able to approach any situation with faith in Him. More than just comfort, Jesus says He wants us to know this that our joy may be full. Our joy is filled up by knowing what we know, and by making use of what He teaches us.

What we know is the Gospel. We know the reality of sin. We know how frequently we go our own way, and feel as if we can handle life without considering Jesus. The verses just preceding our text talk about how the disciples will have sorrow, but the world will have joy, but then our sorrow will be turned to joy. Jesus uses the image of a woman in labor; the pain before, the joy afterward. That is how the gospel works in us and for us.

While we live in this world, we have the joy of the Gospel, but the sorrow of the hatred of the world, and the sorrow of our own sinful flesh longing and lusting for sin. We have the sorrow of guilt and of the knowledge of our sins. The world has no problem with sin. It rejoices in sin. The world loves to lead us to sin for it understands on a primal level that sin separates us from God.

Of course, when I speak of the world as a sentient being, I am not referring to grass and trees, but to the society of men under the guidance of the "ruler of this world" as Jesus described the devil. Men have consciousness and intelligence, and so does the leader of all those who live without Christ. He leads and plans, and so do those who follow him. That's where persecutions come from. We have been safe from persecutions, in this country, and least open and overt persecutions, but that time is coming to an end.

I read recently in the National Review On-Line a column about the senseless and growing violent hatred towards Christians in this country - coming from the Main Stream Media, certain politicians, and the intellectual elites. It is growing. Strong language and virulent aspersions are aimed with increasing frequency and energy at just-plain-old-fashioned Christians. We are called ignorant, demented, backwards, dangerous. Our intelligence is impugned in speeches and in print. We are accused of doing things we don't do, of trying to commandeer the country and force our values on the world. We are likened to Hitler, accused of being insane, and pictured as an enemy that must be eradicated - and this by people who don't think that Islamic terrorism is really a big problem in the world.

Those who spew such hate language at us are "the world" of which I speak. They have effectively removed historic Christianity from the public square in our culture, and they want to silence anyone that might bring a Christian perspective into the arena of politics or government policy or education. They have likened the humble confession of the Christian faith - or Christian-based morality - to terrorism. They make the lives of God's people difficult and bitter, that is, if the disappearance of religious symbols from the streets and buildings of our towns bothers you, and if hearing our president castigated for speaking about being a Christian and viewing his responsibilities as president from a Christian faith perspective offends you.

The sorrow we know now is the sorrow of the cross. It is our sins, and the sins of those around us, and the displeasure of the world - even that part of the world that calls itself our friends, our family, or fellow Christians. The joy they know is the joy of seeing the influence of Christian thought and morality diminish.
It is in the face of these pains and pressures that Jesus reminds us that we are not alone, nor are we bereft of any help. Just as He would stand up for His disciples and speak against the hostility of the world toward them, and give them peace, and provide for them - so will our heavenly Father do for us. He gives us the promise that God will listen to us and answer any and every prayer. "If you shall ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in My name. That is, He will listen to every prayer, and answer it just as Jesus would - not necessarily giving us every single thing we might think to include in a prayer, as though He were a catalog service, but guiding us, blessing us, protecting us, and providing for our needs, and helping us in every trouble and in every circumstance.

Our joy now is that we are never alone, and never without resources. We have God standing there, ready to hear, eager to answer, promising help and supply in every need. He promises all of that to us because He loves us. He loves us particularly because we love Jesus, we believe in Him and hold to Him and serve Him and call ourselves by His name, and stand with Him for blessing, or for the abuse and hatred of the world.

And how could we do anything other? We are filled with Him. We are in Christ and Christ is in us, and we stand in the world as Christ, with His holiness and with His glory, and with His power. We have His Word. We eat His body and drink His blood. We love with His love, and we suffer the hatred of the world for Him. And the heavenly Father loves us and desires to help us stand faithfully in Him and in His love.

Of course, our joy will finally be made complete on the great day of the Lord, when He shall bring us to Himself, body and soul reunited and outfitted for eternity. And He gives us this privilege and power of prayer so that we may stand, and may finally taste that ultimate joy. And knowing the truth of all of these things, our theme this morning is, Therefore, Pray!

Use the gift of God and call upon Him in every need, and never doubt that God desires your prayers, and He will listen, and He will answer with everything you need, and all that will be of blessing for you. After all, it is part of your birthright and inheritance as the child of God in Jesus Christ. It is comfort when you need it. It is power when you need that. It is the source of wisdom and a fountain of strength and protection from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a world stacked against you.

Therefore, pray. Pray often. Pray with confidence. Never give up on prayer. Take advantage of the love of God for you - because that is precisely what He wants you to do.

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

Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Spirit of Truth


John 16:5-15

"But now I am going to Him who sent Me; and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?' But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.

"I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said, that He takes of Mine, and will disclose it to you."

Sermon for Cantate Sunday 05/02/21

The Spirit of Truth

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

He is not coming.

He is here! The Spirit of Truth of which Jesus spoke. He is here through Word and Sacrament. And, yes, it would be correct to say that He continues to come in the preaching of the Word and in the gifts of the Sacraments. My point is, however, that it is no longer merely a future event.

The Apostles were looking forward to the coming of Pentecost, although they did not know it. Jesus had not died yet, and they were not expecting that, so how could they be anticipating Pentecost? The Spirit is at work among us already, convicting the world and teaching us the truth. It is this work that is so important that it is to our advantage that Jesus is not among us now, so that the Spirit may be among us and working His work.

What is that work? Convicting the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment, and leading us into the truth.

He convicts the world concerning sin. That doesn't mean that the world becomes convinced about sin. The world's certainty about sin comes and goes - it waxes and wanes. We are presently in a time when most of the world, including the part that calls itself Christian, is unconvinced – and usually unconscious – about sin. That is why we have legal abortion and preferential treatment of homosexuals, and women ministers, and such things. Part of the problem, of course, is that so many preachers do not preach the law clearly. Too many have decided that what the Church has to offer is so weak and pathetic and undesirable, that we must approach people in a socially appealing way, and sell them on the sweetness and delight of the treasures we distribute. We have to find some sort of sugar-coating to get people to take the bitter medicine of the Gospel.

You can't tell people that they are wicked and sinful and expect them to come back to church week after week. That is how the story goes. Unfortunately for such preachers, that is the only tested and true way to make people want to come back. Those who hear such a message are the only sorts of people who will come back week after week, faithfully. Sinners need forgiveness and salvation. Those who are not really sinful need to be entertained and "uplifted".

The whole thing really comes down to the "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me," that Jesus spoke in our Gospel a couple of weeks ago. The Good Shepherd comes to rescue us, not entertain us, or please us with His bag of tricks. Too much of the world around us thinks that the purpose of religion is to make us happy or to make life make sense for us. The Gospel does that, but that is a secondary benefit. We find that life makes more sense when we know that we rest secure in the hands of the Good Shepherd, and when the real issues of life and death are resolved for us. Jesus came to solve the problem of death and hell, not give us a heartwarming hour of praise music, or deal with the injustices of our society or of the world around us. The world wants so much less from God than He wants to give us.

Thank God that He has done just that, solved the problem of dying and of eternal misery in hell. One of the reasons that you don't hear so much about that problem is that Jesus has saved us. Too many people figure that since we have salvation, we should talk about something else, and not dwell on the negatives - - like sin, and God's wrath, and guilt. People want to feel good. Since Jesus has saved us, we should look at the positive side, and stand up and sing happy songs, and just feel good! So that is what most churches do. It certainly seems like it should be more appealing to people than sin and guilt and death and hell. And the big churches generally prove that point. The world wants to feel good, and it is the job of their churches to make it so.

The Spirit, meanwhile, convicts the world of sin because they do not believe in Jesus. They believe something about Jesus, that's for sure. But they believe, basically, in themselves. They figure that their choices and decisions are what make the difference in their salvation - so they really believe in themselves. Their feelings determine how they are and how things are going, not Jesus, not the promises of God, but how they respond to the preacher and the worship event. That's the big thing for them. Truth be damned, how you feel inside is what really counts. So, they figure that if they feel good enough, or pious enough, or repentant enough, or "spiritual" enough, that is what is important. That is what they count as saving. Jesus can tell them that their sins are forgiven because He died on their behalf, and that is nothing to them but words. The preachers do not dare to speak either absolution or the retaining of their sins. He (or she) may not believe it themselves, but even if they do – who is he (or she) to do that, only God can forgive sins! Jesus had the same problem with the Pharisees a long time ago.

Since they do not wish to hear about sin, and they do not place their hope completely on Jesus, they stand convicted of the sins they do not want to hear about, do not want to repent of, and do not want to hear the absolution spoken to them.
They stand convicted because they called Jesus a liar when He said "This is my body, given for you," and "This is my blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins."

They stand convicted because they will not take Jesus at His Word when He tells them that Baptism is step one of the two-step program for making disciples, and when Jesus says that one must be born again by Baptism (by water and the Spirit) to enter the kingdom of God – and they call Peter a liar when he teaches us, by the inspiration of Jesus, that Baptism saves you. Oh, they practice baptism, but they do so only after carefully calling Jesus a liar and saying that it is only a rule we must follow – and not the gift of life itself.

The Spirit of Truth convicts the world of sin by preaching it to them, and they simply will not listen. You can ignore those letters from the IRS, too. But if you do, eventually, they will come and take your stuff away from you – and when people ignore it and reject it and call it a lie when the Holy Spirit preaches the Law to them, and reject the wonderful gift of forgiveness and life which He brings to them in Jesus' name – they still stand convicted of sins, precisely because they refuse to believe in Jesus.

The Spirit of Truth convicts them of righteousness, too, because Jesus is righteous, and he has gone to be with the Father. It is not their righteousness, however, that they stand convicted of, but Jesus'. He is perfectly righteous, otherwise He could not stand in the Father's presence. But we see Him no longer, as did the disciples of old because He is righteous and can stand in the presence of the Father, interceding for us, and bestowing upon all that believe His own perfect righteousness. Believing or unbelieving, the righteousness of Jesus stands as a truth, and He gives it to each one of you – by grace, through faith.

Your sins are forgiven! Each of you stands before God as perfect and holy, just like Jesus, because Jesus died for you, and forgives you. It doesn't matter how you feel today, or tomorrow. It is simply the truth. If your life doesn't make sense to you, that's okay. Your salvation is still the truth of God!

Then, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of Judgment, because the rule of this present, sinful world has been judged. The court was held on the cross, and in the grave that once held Jesus. The resurrection was the verdict. Christ is arisen! Your sins are forgiven. Now death and hell have been destroyed! No one need ever suffer eternal death and condemnation. The only people who will are those convicted of sin! Remember the great courtroom scene of Romans 8? Listen again as I read it for you. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

The Spirit of Truth convicts them of righteousness, too, because Jesus is righteous, and he has gone to be with the Father. It is not their righteousness, however, that they stand convicted of, but Jesus'. He is perfectly righteous, otherwise, He could not stand in the Father's presence. But we see Him no longer, as did the disciples of old because He is righteous and can stand in the presence of the Father, interceding for us, and bestowing upon all that believe His own perfect righteousness. Believing or unbelieving, the righteousness of Jesus stands as a truth, and He gives it to each one of you – by grace, through faith.r, and the world does not wish to participate. They often dress their rejection of life and salvation up as wisdom, or spirituality, or inclusiveness and compassion. It is, however, their mistake - a tragic and fatal mistake.

The Spirit of Truth teaches Christ. He proclaims forgiveness won and bestowed – and totally undeserved by those that receive it. He speaks of the Love of God and of confidence in His goodwill toward us within which we may rest secure. Every bit of it is true, because it is from Jesus, and Jesus got it all from the Father. Human opinion does not carry any weight here, because these things are the work of Jesus Christ and the trustworthy teachings of the Spirit of Truth.

Our part - and it, too, is a gift really, is to speak the "Amen."

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