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Joshua 4:1-9 "THE LESSON OF THE STONES"
September 6, 2020 - Pentecost 14


   When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
   So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
 
   So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down. Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.


It is one of the climactic events in all of biblical history. The Israelites had waited forty years, but now the time had come. It is a poignant moment as they advance across the Jordan opened for them by God’s miraculous power. They leave behind wearying decades of meandering in a barren wilderness and the tragic memories of countless funerals for an entire generation of people who would not trust God’s promises. Slavery in Egypt and the bare survival of nomadic life are past experiences now. A new and welcome chapter lies open before them in a land richer than their dreams, more fruitful than their hopes, and more beautiful than their imagination. Can you sense their excitement? 

It must have felt surreal to stand in Canaan, not unlike when you unlock the door to your first home. You’ve envisioned it, planned for it, imagined what you will do with it. But when you step though that front door, your emotions soar! To experience the fulfillment of that ancient promise made to Abraham six centuries earlier must have been overwhelming! “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you..." (Gen. 17:8), God had said. They were now heirs to this land. Can you sense their joy? 

That joy had been magnified by recent events. They had arrived at the Jordan in the spring of the year and found it at flood stage. Snowmelt in the mountains far to the north had swollen the river so that its normal tranquil flow was now menacing in its speed and dangerous for what it concealed. Jungle-like growth on the banks had disguised the river's swift current, leaving Israel flatfooted. The river was impassible, crossing it impossible.

But then the Lord intervened. He performed a miracle that paralleled the miracle of their fathers’ exodus from Egypt. God rolled back the waters of the Jordan. He dammed up the water as at the Red Sea. He had meant what he had said through Moses years earlier: “The Lord your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you” (Deut. 6:10). Here was his signature again, in the same way, to assure his people that he was good to his word.

I imagine there were songs and shouts as the Israelites lifted high the name of God and worshiped him. But there was also one important act that draws our attention this morning. After the Israelites crossed, God gave Joshua some specific instructions, recorded here. After the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord told Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”

Joshua did exactly as he was told. He sent twelve select men back to the riverbed of the Jordan where they retrieved twelve stones. Size-wise these stones were likely a bit larger than a bowling ball (each man was directed to “take up a stone on his shoulder so we might make that fairly accurate guess). Previously hidden beneath the water’s surface, unseen, unnoticed, these large stones were intended now to serve a divinely-ordained purpose.

The men hoisted the stones, smooth and round from years of being submerged in the current —   hoisted these stones to their shoulders and carried them to the riverbank. There they piled them on top of each other as a memorial marking the precise spot where the Israelites first set foot in the Land of Canaan. A simple monument, it commemorated the Lord’s ability and power to overcome any obstacle in the interest of his people and his intent to fulfill completely his word. Some years later, after the conquest of the land was complete and territory allotted to each tribe, Joshua would write in conclusion to this chapter of Israel’s history:  “Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled(Josh. 21:45).

Here we see part of the LESSON OF THE STONES. We have a mighty God, capable of doing anything. God is not bound by the laws of nature; he actually wrote those laws of nature and can suspend them at will. Try to box God in ... imagine that he has the same limitations you do ... and he will prove you wrong. Remember that, my friends, when you stand before your next seeming impassable barrier. A raging river turned out to be no hinderance to him at all and, with that mighty God at your side, he will help you to surmount any obstacle, deal with any difficulty, and face squarely any dilemma. The prophet Isaiah declared, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save” (Isa. 59:1), and - indeed! - it is not. Where God is, there deliverance is never far away.

God is without beginning and end, the great I AM God who dwells in the eternal present. In his interactions with people, the Lord is always thinking about and planning for the future, while keeping an eye on and remembering the past. For example, as the Israelites were preparing to leave Egypt and reading the first Passover celebration, that meal featuring a spotless, year-old lamb, the feast which  afterwards would recall deliverance, God had said. "When you enter the land … observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’"

Here we do not have here a snippet of a travelog: God's ancient people, Israel, going from Point A to Point B, momentarily delayed by a swollen stream. No! This is a convergence (coming together and reiteration) of salvation history. You see, the day when Israelites crossed the Jordan River they only days from celebrating their first-ever Passover in the Promised Land. The day when they went up to make camp at Gilgal was “the tenth day of the first month” (4:19). That would make it the same day when the people would search their flocks for the perfect, yearling lamb to be the Passover centerpiece, the same day centuries laters when Jesus would ride into Jerusalen on the back of the donkey.

It was fitting that the Lord, who is both forward-looking and backward-looking, would order the construction of this very basic monument. Because stones don’t naturally stack themselves into a pyramid shape, he envisioned a day when the next generation would ask for an explanation of this phenomenon – that pyramid-shaped pile of stones placed along the riverbank. Here’s the answer God wanted them to give: “When your children in the future ask their fathers, ‘What are these stones?’ you shall teach your children, ‘On dry land Israel crossed over this Jordan.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan in front of you until you crossed over, just as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up in front of us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth would know that the hand of the Lord is strong, so that you would fear the Lord your God always.” (Joshua 4:21-24 EHV)

And so, as soon as the feet of priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water - ten miles upstream the river's flow was halted to less than a trickle. By God’s almighty power a passageway was opened and the Israelites were able to cross in safety!

We sing in one of our classic, "oldie but goodie" hymns, “When I tread the verge of Jordan; / Bid my anxious fears subside; / Death of death and hell’s Destruction / Land me safe on Canaan’s side ..”. The expressions “Death of death” and “hell’s Destruction” are capitalized because the hymnwriter is referring to Jesus. He is the death of death. He is the destruction of hell and all evil. We sing that verse and ask God to do for us what he did here for his people of old – deliver us from every threat to body and soul.

That day 3400 years ago was all about God, his faithfulness to his people of old, and his promise of long-standing to give them a home. This truth, too, belongs to THE LESSON OF THE STONES. God’s grace and power work together to deliver blessing to those undeserving of God’s blessing. For who were those who crossed through the Jordan on dry land? Grumblers, doubters, foot-draggers and disobedient … law-breakers who by their actions, if not their words, frequently dared to tell God: “We think we know better than you how to live our lives.” However, God did not hold his people’s insolence and their intractable behavior against them. Rather, the Lord forgave them. He forgave them for the sake of that One very, very special Descendant who would be born in the land they were entering to possess.

In today’s Gospel Lesson Peter testifies to who Jesus is. In response to the Savior’s question about his identity, Peter declares,“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus applauds that courageous, confident witness and goes on to say that this confession is the foundation for salvation of everyone who believes. “On this rock (the testimony which Peter just gave) I will build my church ...”. The Son of the living God is the hope of every sinful human being and there is no one else and nothing else that can save. Jesus’ mission was to restore life to this world of death, which is why we make that plea in that hymn I just mentioned:  Land me safe on Canaan’s side ..” – the Promised Land above.

Peter didn’t always show the unwavering trust in Jesus that he confessed there, did he? In the courtyard of the high priest, after Jesus was taken prisoner and was being interrogated by the religious authorities, this rock crumbled. Peter wilted in the face of intimidation. When a lowly servant girl “looked closely at him and said (to those standing nearby), ‘This man was with him,’” Peter denied Jesus. “Woman, I don’t know him.” Despite his frequent bravado, Peter proved to have feet of clay, as had these Israelites and as we sometimes have. Yet, Jesus forgave and restored his disciple. Later, in a letter written to Christians living in Asia Minor who were undergoing all kinds of hardship, for their encouragement, Peter would talk about their new identity. He would say: “… you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pe 2:5). Jesus gave Peter the nickname “Cephas,” which is Greek for ‘rock’ because of that beautiful confession of faith he made. Well, according to Peter, we are stones in the church of Jesus Christ. We are a memorial God has set up to commemorate his saving acts. Like those stones plucked from the middle of the Jordan and put on display, we were plucked from certain damnation and have been put on display for all to see. And what do people see when they look at you? Our God-hewn beauty! Nothing in us caused God to choose us, but in grace – undeserve love alone – he chose us to be his eternal possession, the new and true Israel of God. Friends, treasure that status you have received and know that your eternal future is sure and secure in Christ.

Our passage concludes by saying about those twelve large stones, “And they are there to this day.” The orginal readers of Joshua’s account of Israel’s conquest of the land could – in their own time – go and visit that spot. The memorial recounting the grace and power of God could still be seen. Obviously, that mount of stones is long gone, but you and I and all who trust in the one Savior, Jesus Christ, will never pass away. The Church of God will stand for eternity – without a doubt the most significant fact we can take today from THE LESSON OF THE STONES.

Amen.




Exodus 14:10-31 "THE LORD FIGHTS FOR YOU'
August 23, 2020 - Pentecost 12


  Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” 

Thank you again for indulging my fantasy of being Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy.
 
Contestants, you’ve made your wagers and I’ll remind you of the category for Final Jeopardy. It is "Famous Female Singers" and here is your clue.  “Known professionally as the First Lady of Radio, she reached the pinnacle of her success in the 1940s and is best known for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” You have 30 seconds to write your response.

Did you come up with the correct question? The Songbird of the South sang with Jack Miller’s orchestra in the 1930s and also starred on two NBC television programs in the early 1950’s.  “Who is Kate Smith?”  
 
What if our Final Jeopardy category was Famous Biblical Female Singers, how would you do with this clue? “Described as a prophetess and the sister of Moses and Aaron, with tambourine in hand she led the women of Israel in praising God for his victory at the Red Sea.” The correct question is … “Who is Miriam?” The Song of Miriam is recorded in Exodus chapter 15. It begins … 
“I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.
 
The victory which Miriam celebrated in song we have recorded in our First Lesson. The theme of both is well summarized in Moses’ words of encouragement: “THE LORD FIGHTS FOR YOU.”

In that pivotal moment when their existence hung in the balance, the Lord rescued his ancient people. He delivered the Israelites and not just so that they might have a Kate Smith-like, patriotic ballad to sing, but to bring glory to his name and to prove to the world that he is a gracious God, a God who works in the interest of and for the eternal welfare of his people. This morning lets unpack the truth “THE LORD FIGHTS FOR YOU” and see how it especially applies to us who have been brought from sure and certain spiritual death to spiritual life in Christ Jesus.
 
Let’s go further back in time, 400 years before these events. Last week we hear how Joseph became the premier of Egypt, second in command only behind Pharaoh. The Israelites enjoyed priveledged status in land. But as the years passed, the Israelites’ time in Egypt grew distasteful, bitter. As the pharaohs forget the faithful service of Joseph, their opinions of the Israelites changed. They were no longer a highly valued race. They came to be regarded as shepherding bumpkins and later, worthless rabble. The Egyptians’ feelings toward them changed from warmth, to indifference, to outright hostility.

The Israelites had no clue what was in store for them at the time – that it would come to this. Soon, though, they learned – as hundreds of years of grueling, unmerciful slavery was thrust upon them. The Egyptians robbed them of their goods, stripped them of their pride, stole and murdered their children. They crushed Israel’s hopes and bound their race. God’s promises began to sound more distant. God’s mighty acts from the past were gradually forgotten. The teaching of God fell by the wayside and preaching fell tragically silent. 

However then, God acted. He heard their cries for mercy. He reminded them that their fathers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – were not only ‘fathers’ by blood, but by faith. The Lord assured them his promises never went unfulfilled. He recalled an exiled murderer from hiding, and set him over the Israelites as their leader and prophet for life. 

This took a while. Pharaoh’s heart was hard and it grew harder still. God’s Word, his threats and promises, can do that to people. Plague after plague after plague Pharaoh drew nearer to his own destruction. With every warning he became more resolute in his defiance. Only when God took from Pharaoh his son, the same price the Lord would give for all Israel, that Pharaoh finally caved and let God’s people go. 

How glorious it had been —   walking out of Egypt, away from their slavery, having plundered the Egyptians who willingly showered their former slaves with their riches, pleading with them to take it far from them. At long last, they had been delivered! It was a day that would never be forgotten, they were sure of that! But sure isn’t always certain. 

It did not take long for Pharaoh to change his mind —   or the Israelites for that matter. Once the stampeding army drew near, as they stood with their backs against the sea, they collectively suffered temporary amnesia. They forgot what had happened at the very first Passover when they marched victoriously out of Egypt. They now heartlessly rebuke Moses: "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? … It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"
 

They stood trapped with no way out. In one direction they looked and saw only the Red Sea; in the other Pharaoh’s fast approaching armies. Terror filled their hearts which had become so accustomed to terror. Here were their oppressors bearing own on them with chariots capable of furious speed, and swords and spears capable of furious slaughter. They forgot. They wavered. They doubted. They had taken their eyes off the Messiah, forgotten the long-promised Savior awaiting them in their very DNA.

But God would not forsake them. He needed them to live, to pass down the promise until the Promised One came —   so God could forsake that One on the cross, his very own Son, to forgive these ungrateful, forgetful, and stiff-necked sinners. As they stood there with knees knocking and hands trembling, facing seemingly certain destruction or drowning, Moses told them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm … The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

And fight the Lord did, in his own unique way. The angel of God moved to the rear of march, as did the pillar of cloud and fire, bringing darkness to their enemies but light to God’s people. Then through Moses God parted the sea and opened the way before them. Luring the pursuing Egyptians in, God insured that they were the ones annihilated that day. The Israelites did nothing. God did it all. He fought and Israel won. 

Have you ever faced a charging army of Egyptian charioteers? Truthfully, I haven’t. But how often haven’t we all been frozen in fear? … or, if not completely frozen, then at least felt fear’s cold grip grab your insides and begin to squeeze? If you’ve never felt any sort fear, either you are fooling yourself, are dead, or are adept at slipping into selective amnesia.

We all have fears. It matters little how upbeat, positive, and happy-go-lucky you may be, you have some things that you fear —  or that you would fear were you ever to experience them. It’s natural, because we live in a fallen world. There are things that we should be afraid of losing … losing stuff you think you’re gonna need; losing connections with someone near and dear; losing your job; losing loved ones. There are fears that come from outside forces:  an uncaring boss; storms that blast away at your windows and roof. All these are real and rational fears.

But it is when we become gripped and consumed by fear that we get into trouble like Peter on the Sea of Galilee. When we look around and see trouble here, trouble there, trouble all around us, and think that there’s no hope, no way out, we begin to sink. That kind of fear does not come from a rational place, but is born of doubt, raised on forgetfulness, and grown on spiritual amnesia.

And we’ve been there at that point, haven’t we – time and again? Like the Israelites who dared to rebuke God’s messenger, we too find reason to criticize God’s plans. We easily become a bunch of “chicken littles” who are convinced the sky is falling down. We run around shouting, “What should I do?” when we’ve already been told, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

After all that God had done for his people, you couldn’t blame him if he simply let them fend for themselves. After all that we’ve received from our gracious God, you’d almost expect him let us try to do it alone, and then watch as we doubt, fear, and sin our way into hell.

But instead God fought for you. As Moses lifted up his staff to part the waters and save his people, so Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross to save you. As the angel of God fought for the lives of the children of Israel, so also the Son of God fought for you, battling Satan and sin on Calvary and winning the fight in death, that you would have eternal life. As the Lord drowned the armies of Pharaoh in the depths of the sea, so also are your enemies drowned through the waters of your Baptism. Joined with Christ in that blessed sacrament your sinful nature is buried by the grace of his sacrifice and death is destroyed through the power of his resurrection. 

So … what is your Pharaoh and Egyptians? What is your Red Sea? Whatever has made you doubt God’s promises, lose sight of Christ and begin to fear -  in the face of all of those things stand firm in Christ. Stand firm because nothing can tear away from you the results of God’s deliverance from sin! You have been rescued at the cross of our Savior. You are headed to the Promised Land of heaven above, because the Lord fought for you in Jesus.
 
And this, my friends, is why faith conquers doubt and faith destroys fear, because faith clings to the victory that Christ has won for you. Faith lays hold of those results and never lets go. It shows you the proverbial 'Big Picture' of a triumpant Jesus Christ reigning in heaven over all things.

Every day of your life here on earth this victorious King of kings and Lord of lords continues to fight for you. Even when you feel trapped and incapable of escaping, he will provide you with a way out. When you think that you’re stuck in an impossible situation, he will rescue you. He can turn evil into good. He will bring laughter after tears. He will save you. How can you know this? Because he loves you with an everlasting love and will never stop fighting for you. 
 
Moses’ staff became a rallying point for the Israelites. Let your Savior’s cross be the same for you. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep him before you in prayer when you wake and when you sleep. Keep him before you in the Word as study it throughout the week. Keep him before you every Sunday as he comes to you in Scripture, Sacrament and song. Let him grow, not smaller, but ever larger before your eyes, for he is the Almighty God, your Deliverer, who always fights for you. 

Amen. 


 

Matthew 14:13-21 "TRUST GOD TO PROVIDE"
August 16, 2020 - Pentecost 11


  When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 
   As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” 
   Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” 
   “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. 
   “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.  The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

When you’re a fan in the stands at the ballpark the JumboTron brings in the action close-up. Important, game-changing plays – out of the park homeruns, players stealing base, the near-impossible-catch caught at the warning track are shown in instant replay on the big screen so you can appreciate it all the more and revel in the moment.

I wonder whether it might not have been helpful to have a JumboTron set up on that hillside where Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand took place. Odd to suggest that? I say that because of a comment which Mark in his gospel makes shortly after reporting this miracle. Jesus eventually dismisses the crowd, sends his disciples back across the lake, and goes up the hillside to spend time alone with his heavenly Father in prayer. Then, in the middle of the night, with his disciples’ boat buffeted by a storm, Jesus – walking on the waves – goes out them. Terrified, they think that he’s a ghost, but he reassures then, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Climbing into the boat, all is instantly quiet. At that point Mark makes this statement, “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”

What didn’t they get about this miracle??? They had served as wait staff for Jesus, ferrying the fish and the loaves which he had blessed and broken to all of those hungry people. But the Twelve had missed something! “… they had not understood about the loaves …”. Had there been a JumboTron on that hillside, maybe what Jesus was endeavoring to teach them could have been replayed many times and it wouldn’t have escaped their notice. Is that a stretch? Am I now only trying to cut them some slack because as a disciple I, too, often find it difficult to translate God’s truths to my life?

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (all four evangelists) record this miracle. Each shares details unique to his telling as the Holy Spirit inspired. John, for example, reveals that the loaves and fishes belonged to a boy. Kudos to him for his willingness to share! Before us is Matthew’s version and our takeaway – what we want to emphasize – is that fact which Jesus’ disciples apparently missed though it was so obvious, namely, that we can always … “TRUST GOD TO PROVIDE” There’s never a need to wring your hands in worry, to shrug your shoulders in doubt, to hang your head in despair – not with Jesus in charge. Even when the available resources seem limited; even when it’s hard to grasp his plans and purposes, “TRUST GOD TO PROVIDE.”

1. ... even when the available resources seem limited

Jesus was anticipating some quality time with his disciples. His go-go-go ministry had gone on too long without a break. His disciples had just returned from a preaching mission to the nearby towns and villages of Galilee. They would benefit from a period of debriefing and relaxation. Jesus, too, sought to clear his mind. Shortly before this his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded on order of Herod Antipas and the shadow Jesus’ own suffering and death loomed large in his consciousness. So Jesus withdrew privately to a solitary place to lay low.

When he suddenly dropped off the radar, people came looking for him. They found out he and his disciples had boarded a boat and were sailing kitty-corner across the Sea of Galilee to the remote northeast shore. They followed on foot, tracking the boat’s progress. This wasn’t a few dozen eager autograph seekers, but a throng numbering in the thousands. They came by whole families; they came with their sick, hobbling on crutches and carried on stretchers. Many of these people were waiting when Jesus’ boat landed.

Seeing the multitudes, Jesus’ compassionate, Savior’s-heart went out to them. Forgetting his own weariness, he spent the day ministering to them. Meanwhile, the Twelve recognized a logistical nightmare in the making. The crowds had made this trek of several miles without any supplies for the day. The disciples came to Jesus and suggested he act quickly to do avert a catastrophe. “This is a deserted place and the hour is already late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

But Jesus had a different idea. He turned from helping and teaching the people to training his disciples. “You give them something to eat,” he challenged them. That response surely caused no little consternation. Wasn’t he listening? Couldn’t he see the reality of the situation? They’d done the math and —   well, numbers don’t lie. Eight months wages wouldn’t buy enough food for these thousands to have a bite, and that was assuming they had a place to buy the food! One Bible commentator has these men pegged perfectly
:  "The disciples saw all of the problems and none of the possibilities. ... Their math didn’t fail them, but their faith did. They did not begin to understand what kind of Lord they had in Jesus."

What numbers don’t add up for you? Is it the numbers from medical tests that show no improvement? Or the numbers in the checkbook that make you feel you’re falling behind? Is it the number of hours in a day that don’t seem to be enough to do what you want? Or is it the number of failures and disappointments that keep growing larger, while the number of meaningful relationships or accomplishments stagnate or dwindle?
How depressing those numbers can be when we want truly to serve our Lord, but reality seems to hold us back! We don’t have the finances, don’t have the time, don’t have the abilities, don’t have the health, or whatever else it is that makes us feel inadequate. The disciples wanted to do what was good for the people, but they didn’t have the resources. All they had uncovered was that boy’s lunch and five loaves and two fish weren’t going to cut it. Where was the rest of the food to feed these people going to come from?

That inventory analysis, however, was part of the lesson on trust Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. They needed to come to terms with the inadequacies of their present circumstances – their lack of sufficiency so they could then look to him. Ditto you and me. Like the disciples, only when we are confronted with how limited we are in resources will we look outside of ourselves to Jesus. You see, any focus on self … what I can do … what abilities, talent, intellect I have … what I can scrape together … is always going to leave me with a misplaced, faulty focus. It’s not trusting in God. It’s not relying on him. And that’s a spiritually and an eternally dangerous mindset to have. Often we consider this miracle and zero in on thousands who become the beneficiaries of the Jesus’ power as he multiplies those loaves and fish, but Jesus worked this wonder to help broaden the understanding of his closest friends and see him as their both Savior and problem solver in every dilemma.

Notice what Jesus says to his disciples who are in that quandary of being unsure what to do: “Bring them here to me.” Jesus has a plan for those fish and loaves, about which we’ll hear momentarily.

What excellent advice:  “Bring it to Jesus!” When the reality of the numbers hits you in the face, bring it to Jesus in prayer. Lay out before him how you feel limited by reality – whether due to health, finances, ability, or time. Lay out before him your thoughts, plans, aspirations, and desire to serve. Lay out before him your struggles and failures, your disappointments and losses. Then stand back, prayerfully wait and watch, allowing him unfold what he has in mind to do! I
n short, “TRUST GOD TO PROVIDE.”

2. ... even when it's hard to grasp his plans and purposes

The Twelve may have assumed Jesus’ approach to this dilemma was going to be to handle it on the fly. In fact, the omniscient and omnipotent Son of God had it all figured out. He was in control of everything. He knew what time of day it was. He knew how far away it was the nearest village. Before Andrew even located that boy, Jesus was aware of his presence in the crowd and aware that earlier in morning he had hastily wrapped several barley loaves and a couple of sun-dried fish in a napkin, stuffing it in his pocket intending it to be his lunch. The five loaves and two fish represented a problem to the disciples; for Jesus they were object lessons use to teach his students all about trusting him.

Whether the Twelve had an inkling of the scope of the miracle they’d soon see or not, they followed Jesus’ directions. Across that hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, as far as the eye could see, the people sat down. It’s not revealed in any of the gospels what exactly the disciples thought about this, but I would’ve been confused. “Jesus, there’s only five loaves and two fish here. If the people are sitting down expecting to eat, they’re going to be disappointed. Do we really want to get their hopes up?”  

Without commenting on the meagerness of the loaves and fish, without bemoaning that he could do a whole lot more if only his disciples had scrounged up more food, Jesus looked up to heaven and gave thanks to his heavenly Father for what they did have. Then he gave the food to his disciples to distribute to the people. Again, I’d have been thinking. “No way is this gonna last. We’re going to run out before the first group even has a bite.” But the disciples spread open their cloaks to receive the food or filled the baskets they may have had over and over and they kept distributing the loaves and the fish, hustling back and forth between Jesus and the crowd.

Matthew says in conclusion: “They all ate and were satisfied.” No one went hungry that day.

What Jesus offered to this group of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand people —   that count a fair ‘guestimate’ —   is a picture of what Jesus offers to the world – divine satisfaction. The opposite – dissatisfaction – is the natural state of the human heart and mind. We so often feel unfulfilled, unhappy and frustrated by what we take to be wrong and unfair:  the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, injustice flourishes while decency and integrity are maligned. It’s easy to get lost in our funk and complain about what we lack. But Jesus lived and died to provide us what we need deep down inside. He is the great satisfier. He came to give us the forgiveness of sins (our sins), to rescue from the devil’s power, and to bless us with life eternal at that feast of pure grace that is going to take place in heaven above.
 
Conclusion.  This was that lesson in trust which Jesus meant for his twelve students. How closely were they paying attention? Were they taking copious notes, mentally at least? We’d like to think they were, but the evangelist Mark’s remark and their fright in the middle of the night out on the lake suggests otherwise. Would a JumboTron have helped – an instant replay? Probably not as much as we might think. Because we are human beings, even gifted with saving faith in Christ our trust ebbs and wanes. Strong one moment we’re weak the next.

Happily, Scripture assures us of the constancy of Christ, his faithfulness to us. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” We have ample evidence of Jesus’ ability, his power, to address every troubling issue of our life. The greatest problem solver of all time is on our side!  Jesus is with us, the God-Man – all-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere, and watching over us always.  Do you or I have any legitimate reason to question his commitment to us? None, at all! God is love and Jesus is love. We see that in his feeding of the five thousand, as well as every other miracle Jesus performed.  We see it in every Word he has spoken and written down.  And we see it in his death and resurrection. Bring all of your problems to Jesus, place them into God’s hands.  “TRUST GOD TO PROVIDE.” 

Amen.

 

Mathew 13:44-52 "YOU ARE THE TREASURE!"
August 9, 2020 - Pentecost 10


  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.  When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
   “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
   “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.  When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore.  Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.  This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
   “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
   “Yes,” they replied.
   He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”


In Matthew 13 Jesus has been on a veritable roll preaching parables. He starts with his Parable of the Sower and the Seed, in which he explains why the preaching of the Word doesn’t always meet with success.  He continues with his Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, in which he basically explains why God allows evil to exist in the world and what he will eventually do about it. Near the end of chapter 13 Jesus rapid-fires three short parables in a row – today’s Gospel Lesson. 

Through the centuries the overwhelming majority of Bible interpreters have said that these parables are about discipleship, namely, that as disciples of Jesus we discover the kingdom of heaven and “sell” (forego or relinquish) all else to keep this one thing. There are good biblical reasons for reading these parables this way.  Today, however, I would suggest an alternate approach. What if these parables are not so much about our “finding” Jesus, but about Jesus finding us???

Helpful to remember about these so-called parables of the kingdom – “the kingdom of heaven is like…” – is that they are about what God in Christ is doing for the world. In addition, it is helpful to recall that anytime a parable has one principle actor or character, that one actor is a stand-in for God. So in these short parables, it’s plausible what we have are short stories or illustrations of what God is doing in Christ for the world. God is the actor in these parables and in the world he has found a hidden treasure … a pearl of great value, and that treasure is you. Instead of reading these parables as our giving up everything to possess the treasure that is Christ, Jesus finds us and gives up everything – including his own life – so that we can be his. Again, “YOU ARE THE TREASURE!”

Jesus then speaks these parables to comfort and strengthen his disciples in the face of a mission that won’t always be easy, a mission that will be fraught with frustration and failure. Still, the kingdom of God will prevail and God’s purposes in the lives of his people will be accomplished.

 
I

The first of Jesus’ parables is the Parable of the Hidden Treasure. 
 
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.  When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
 
A contemporary artist named Ed Riojas (who happens to be Lutheran) depicts Jesus’ Parable of the Hidden Treasure in quite the creative way, giving the viewer a memorable insight into what our Savior is talking about. In Riojas’ painting the field is a cemetery. You see gravestones all around and some trees and buildings in the distant background. At one of the graves Jesus is pulling a casket out of the ground and, if you look very closely, you can see that the name on the gravestone is the name of the artist himself. The treasure for which Jesus was willing to give all is those who were “dead in trespasses and sin.” To remind us of the price that Jesus paid to buy the field, the artist included a nail hole in Jesus’ hand that is visible in the painting. 

You and I, dead – totally dead and buried in sin and death – are the treasure for which Jesus willingly gave up everything, his very life. Peter wrote in his first letter:  “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ.” That is the price Jesus paid for the treasure that he considers us to be. Jesus pulls us up from this pit through absolutely no doing of our own. Spiritually-speaking we were dead and buried. There was nothing we could do to help ourselves. But Jesus came to us and pulled us out of the despair of sin and death. He washed us with his life-giving Sacrament of Holy Baptism, claiming us as his own. He paid the price for our redemption, a price he considered well worth paying to give us new life. He did this “in his joy.” 

What that artist showed in his painting of the Parable of the Hidden Treasure will happen literally when Jesus returns on the Last Day to raise the dead. The dead in Christ will be raised with new and glorified bodies, no longer with a hidden glory, but fully visible. For now, our glory is hidden, and the value that Jesus places upon his people is not something that can be discerned with one’s physical senses. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Wherever his treasure is buried anywhere in the world, Jesus will unearth it, for he paid the price to make it his. Bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ you can be certain that will be his precious treasure for all eternity. 

II

Jesus goes on to speak a second short parable, his Parable of the Pearl of Great Price.   
 
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
 
Again, the “pearl” is the people of God, his church, for which he gives all. The price that Jesus pays tells us what we are worth to him. He gives us our worth and our value. Sin may have rendered us something totally worthless and to be cast aside, but by paying for our sin at the cross and rising victoriously over death by his empty grave, you and I have been rendered price-less by the death and resurrection of Christ. 

Both of these parables comfort us by reminding us who we are to God and what we are worth to him.  We are his hidden treasure, his pearl of inestimable value. In Deuteronomy 7:6 God speaks through Moses to his Old Testament people Israel and says to them, “You are a people holy to the Lord your God.  The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”  While that passage originally referred to ancient Israel, it now applies to God’s church of believers in Jesus. God’s chosen people of today are all those who’ve been baptized in the name of the Triune God and who believe the truth of the Gospel of Christ. God’s “Israel” here in these last days is the Holy Christian Church. This one true church, chosen by God (which includes us) is his treasured possession, his pearl of great price.

The value Jesus places on us should be of great comfort. If he gave so much, his very blood shed on the cross for us, how can he not be on our side and in our corner, supporting us? He’s always for us, so that we may live under his grace in peace and without fear. Nothing can snatch God’s chosen people from his hands, or separate them from his love in Christ Jesus. He has done it all; nothing depends upon us. He “found” us.  He brought us to life. Paul writes in Romans 8:  “… those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (that is, gave them then status of saints).” Start to finish God is responsible for our salvation; he’s got it covered.

And, in the face of our sins, our weaknesses, our challenges in this earthly life, we know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." His purpose isn’t to satisfy our every desire and longing here in time, but to bring us ultimately to his everlasting kingdom.  I remember once seeing one of those changeable church signs that read “The plans God has for you are better than your worst disappointment.” That is the sure and certain hope we have.

Though we face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword or death – whatever, we will eventually see that all things do truly work together for good and “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” The reason we can be so utterly certain of never being separated from God, is because God has done it all. He created us, chose us, paid the full price for our redemption from the death that our sins had earned us. Salvation is completely in God’s hands, and he is merciful. 

Nothing in us or about us or nothing we had done made God choose to save us and cause us to become us his disciples. Instead, it was purely by his grace alone, as a divine gift. On our own, we rejected God. We rebelled against him. We set ourselves up as ‘gods’ over him. Yet God chose to send his Son to redeem us.  Jesus set aside his divine glory and took on our human flesh. He gave everything he had – for us. Ancient Israel did not choose God, but he chose them – though they were insignificant and the least of the nations of the earth. Even so God has chosen us. 
We do not choose to follow Jesus, but he chooses us and makes us his followers. We do not decide for Jesus, he decides to buy us and dig us out of the depths. The kingdom of heaven is like that. Thinking that we have any part in saving ourselves diminishes the work of Jesus and robs him of the divine glory that is his alone. That he does it all is a comfort and relief to us.

III

The first two of Jesus’ parables comfort us and give us peace and the certainty of our worth before God. The third parable strengthens us for the work of our calling as disciples. The Parable of the Net is a promise from Jesus that all things will be set right when this world, as we know it, comes to an end.
 
Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.  When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore.  Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.  This is how it will be at the end of the age.
 
The Gospel is for all. Like a net it is cast out and touches all. Some people reject it. Some are hostile to it. Some persecute those who preach it (many Christians experience this is a literal sense; for others it is more subtle). But a day is coming when there will be a final reckoning – a sorting out of the “good” from the “bad.” Jesus’ parable applies here to the interim. The church – through Jesus’ illustration here – is strengthened in her mission to continue preaching the Gospel and not give up. 

For now, the net is cast over all. The word of forgiveness goes forth to accomplish what God desires, the saving of many souls! Those who reject this message of life and oppose it will be separated out and on the Last Day cast into hell – the “blazing furnace.” But those whom God has chosen will be saved.

The purpose of the net is to haul in all kinds – without discrimination. Those who turn a thumbs down to God’s favor, the compassion he has for sinners in Christ, will wind up in hell because of their stubborn rejection of the Gospel; those who are saved will be saved purely by God’s gracious call and the working of faith in their hearts through the life-giving Word of Christ. The only decision we can make in regard to our salvation is to reject Jesus. Hell is God’s confirmation of the rejection of all those who refuse his grace. It’s not any one particular sin that condemns a person, but the refusal to trust in God’s free forgiveness of sins.
 
Jesus winds up his barrage of parables with a question posed to his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?”  Have we

The Twelve said “yes.” As later events show, however, Jesus’ disciples didn’t always understand as well as they thought. We also sometimes falter in our understanding, forgetting the words and promises of God. This is why God gives us his Holy Scriptures as a continual source of comfort and strength, for growth in grace and knowledge – as well as for bringing us to daily repentance and forgiveness. He has given us a house, his church, which is loaded with riches for us – riches that are as old as the creation of the world and as new as the Word spoken into your ears at this moment. We have the riches of his Old Testament and its promises that are fulfilled in Christ and given to us in the New Testament of his holy, precious blood shed for us, that we might be his treasured possession for all eternity. 

That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. 

Amen.








Matthew 13:24-30;36-43  "WHAT SHALL WE DO ABOUT THE WEEDS?"
August 2, 2020 - Pentecost 9


   Jesus told them another parable:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
   “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
   “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
   “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
   “ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters:  First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”  …
Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
   He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
   “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”


Alan, my brother-in-law, farms near New Ulm along with his sons-in-laws Mitch and Eric. To compete in the today’s agricultural environment the farm has evolved over four generations. The milk cows are long gone, replaced with beef cattle. Cash crops provide the bulk of farm income. I can’t begin to guess at the investment in real estate (land – owned and rented), machinery and technology. More than once Alan has told my sister, “If you hear that something’s happened to me, don’t rush to the hospital. Call the lawyer, because you’re gonna need him.” 

In talking to Alan, you’d quickly realize he knows his stuff. He plows and plants by entering GPS coordinates into a computer in the cab of his six figure tractor. He knows what’s going on with the soil in various tracks of land. Everything necessary to get a crop in and out of the ground is taken into account. You’re left with the impression, “Nothing gets by this guy.”

In Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat we meet an equally knowledgeable farmer. He accurately assesses a threat to his operation and wisely advises his workers on how to handle it. Because this is one of those stories for which Jesus provides the interpretation, we’re able to easily decode its seven elements. The sower is “the Son of Man,” Jesus himself; the field is the world; the good seed are “the sons of the kingdom,” believers, “the righteous;” the weeds are “the sons of the evil one,” unbelievers; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is “the end of the age” (Judgment Day); and the reapers are the angels. So now we can carry Jesus’ straightforward story over into real life with no effort, right? Yes and no. Jesus could have made the point, “Bad things are going to happen in the world until the end of time, so you'd better brace yourself.” But the illustration with its details make his point more vibrant and the reasoning behind it much more clear.

Let’s think about Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, recognizing its timeliness. To do so, let’s ask the question which the servants put to the farmer-boss: “WHAT SHALL WE DO ABOUT THE WEEDS?”          
          
1. Recognize their source

A week ago Jesus told his Parable of the Sower and the Seed where the seed fell on four different types of soil:  rocky, weedy, hard-packed, and good.  He used that as a picture of how God’s Word works when proclaimed – often hindered by the condition of the human heart and occasionally, by God’s grace, productive as it yields an impressive harvest of faith and the fruits of faith, good works.

Today, Jesus once more focuses on a man planting seed, but this time we’re not particularly interested in where the seed falls, but the crop that results. The farmer wants a good crop so he uses the best seed. We might assume that he’s careful when scattering the seed so that it falls on good soil. My brother-in-law knows, for example, what crops grow best in the sandy soil of their bottomland acreage along the Cottonwood River and what crops grow best up in the more fertile, black soil fields surrounding the farmstead.

But all the careful planning in the world can’t compete with sabotage. The farmer had an enemy who, for some reason, wanted to ruin his crop or at least see it compromised. Under cover of darkness, suggesting that his actions were nefarious, this enemy sowed ζιζ?νιον (zizanion, phonetic:  dziz-an'-ee-on), a type of darnel in the field.[1] This is a weed has been termed “wheat’s evil twin” because as it grows it looks just like wheat until it ‘heads out’ and the grain appears. It kernels are black and it carries a poisonous fungus which is harmful if eaten. So it’s the exact opposite of the life-supporting wheat among which it’s growing.

The servants are alarmed. They know their master desires only good results. Surely he did not plant seed mixed with this garbage in it and he confirms their thinking: “An enemy did this.” The servants suggest uprooting the weeds because they’re an impediment to the growth of the wheat. But as the farmer analyzes the situation and tells them that it’s better to let the two be. The roots might be intertwined or their proximity to each other might mean that as they try to tear out the weeds, the wheat is going to get uprooted too. “Let both grow together until the harvest.” Later each can be gathered up and separated, with the good crop brought into the barn and the weeds sent to the burn pile.

The picture Jesus paints, as shown by his explanation, is what we see in our world. Side by side there exist wheat and weeds – people who are good because God has made them good through Jesus (sons of the kingdom” he calls them) and people who are not good, wicked, (sons of the evil one”). These later have a negative, harmful effect on everything in this world and fight against the well-being of the wheat. Jesus’ point is that these “bad” plants did not come from him. Their origin is from an enemy – God’s enemy, the devil.

Satan has been God’s enemy nearly from the beginning. Created perfect like the other angels, Satan quickly became unsatisfied with his position. He recruited a band of similarly minded, malcontent spirit beings (angels become demons) to join his rebellion. Rebelling against the all-holy, almighty God is not a smart thing to do. The devil lost not only the battle but his position as well.[2] Still bitter, Satan’s goal is to get as many people to join him in endless misery, suffering for their sins as he’s going to suffer for all eternity for his sins.
2. Accept their presence

History proves that the devil has had more than a little success in persuading people to join him. He’s sown weeds in the field of this world. We look around and see people who clearly don’t care about God and what he’s done for them. Any spirituality they may have is superficial or a religion of their own imagination against which Scripture warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” The “sons of the evil one” regard Christianity as pointless – even goofy – because it causes a person to miss out on ‘the present’ with its emphasis on ‘glory deferred.’ The most ardent of the weeds are convinced Christianity is not just wrong, but dangerous and they actively oppose it. We looked at Paul’s experience in Corinth last week and met some of these critics and naysayers and the frustration they caused the Lord’s Apostle. Yet, thinking back on that instance, Paul did not organize a counter demonstration targeting the unbelieving Jews of Corinth; he didn’t picket in front of their synagogue; he didn’t launch a resistance movement. Taken to the extreme, such horribly misguided approaches have resulted during the Middle Ages, for example, crusades against infidels and inquisitions to expose heretics. Jesus said, “Let both grow together …”.

We might draw a parallel with what’s happening in large cities across America and especially in our nation’s Pacific Northwest in Portland and Seattle —   protests where violence is directed against authority labelled unjust and overbearing. It’s a toxic atmosphere. And we might conclude, “Boy, it’s awfully ‘weedy’ out there!”  We might even be inclined to think, “I’m sure glad God planted me here where my values as a believer fit in with generally accepted Midwest values.” We might go so far as to think, “You know, if God chose to send ‘the big one’ – that long-predicted earthquake that’s supposed to send California and send that tier of western states slipping off into the Pacific Ocean, I’d be okay with that – no big loss.” Yet, that’s hardly a charitable attitude, is it? But these people don’t need our contempt, they need our compassion, our prayers, and our Christian witness.

There are, on this side of eternity, some things we simply cannot change. Weeds are going to exist alongside wheat. Jesus is essentially saying, “Accept that and trust my Father. He’s working his good purposes all the time, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.”     
3. Be sure of their destiny

“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” Paul asks in Romans chapter 11. In that same place in the Apostle’s line of thought he praises God for a wisdom that is lightyears beyond our own. “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! … For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” God allows weeds and wheat to grow together for reasons often known only to him. Yet we can be always be certain it will be for the ultimate good of his people.

On a personal level God may – through that “weedy person” – bring a trial into your life so that you lean on and depend on him more completely. He may well use the ‘poison fruit’ that that person produces to encourage you to bring forth fruit in keeping with your faith —   living your life in such a way that it thanks God for what he’s done for you.

Ultimately, we are unfit to judge between the weeds and the wheat. Confessions and actions may give indication one way or another. But unlike that zizanion and the wheat – whose differences are completely on the outside – the difference between believer and unbeliever is a matter of the heart. We can be deceived by weeds pretending to be wheat and we can misjudge wheat and mark it as a weed. We can’t peer into the heart; we can’t know a person’s faith. So we leave those judgments for God and trust that, when the harvest comes, he will make the proper decision.

That harvest will mean the end. Come Judgment Day there’ll be no more chances, no more options. The crop in the field has no more chance to grow once the sickle or combine is taken to it. Its time in the field is gone and it moves onto the next stage. Jesus makes clear what happens to the wheat and weeds … 

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

This is less a warning and more a message of comfort for the wheat. In the end God is going to take everything that hurt us and caused us pain here in time and get rid of it once and for all. Like weeds bound into a bundle and burned, …
  • everything that ever tempted us to sin and rebel against God,
  • everything that mocked us for our faith, and
  • every last thing that ever brought us misery will be no more.
Pain, suffering, problems of any sort will be absent in heaven. There will be only joy in the eternal mansions of God’s storehouse.

Remember, though, that being brought into the barn has nothing to do with us. We could have just as easily been marked as weeds and sent to the burn pile to face the flames. But that’s the disaster Jesus came to prevent. At the risk of pushing our Savior’s picture to places where he didn’t intend it to go, Jesus’ blood shed on the cross is like fertilizer that fundamentally changes the plants it touches. We were weeds, sinners destined for hell, but Jesus rescued us. That we are brought into the barn is no testament to how good we are. When we find ourselves in God’s barn, it will always, only be because of grace. That undeserved love of God delivered us from that hopeless situation so that, at the end of this age, we will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of [our] Father.”

While still wheat in the field, let’s surround ourselves that which will strengthen us. Let’s be rooted in God’s Word personally, as families, and as a family of believers in this congregation and so allow God to nurture and fertilize our faith. If we sense Satan returning and trying to sell his lies of how wonderful it is to be a weed, let’s send him packing. He is no friend. Jesus rightly labeled him our enemy, as well as God’s enemy. Satan’s lies, though tempting, have no power over us. Our Savior has triumphed over his deception.

We will dwell in the storehouse of our God forever. That gift is for everyone, even those we might deem to be against us, even the weeds among the wheat, so share it.  You just might find that at the last day God has turned those you thought were weeds into wheat, fellow heirs of God’s kingdom!

Praise God who tends to his field and ensures that, despite the problems around us, we all have exactly what we need!

Amen.
 
[1] Darnel is a “mimic weed,” neither entirely tame or quite wild, that looks and behaves so much like wheat that it can’t live without human assistance. Darnel seeds are stowaways: the plant’s survival strategy requires its seeds to be harvested along with those of domesticated grasses, stored and replanted next season. (www.atlasobscura.com)
 
[2] “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.” (2 Peter 2:4)
 

Acts 18:1-11  "SCATTERING SEED AND THE CURIOUS POWER OF GOD"
July 26, 2020 - Pentecost 8


  After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
   When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
   Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.
   One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.


With most of our stay-at-home neighbors working at beautifying their yards this spring, my wife and I decided it was time to get rid of an eyesore in our front yard, a 35 ft blue spruce. Winter-kill had left it with lots of barren branches and nuisance seedlings growing beneath it and a strangling vine weaving its way up the trunk had all but sealed the tree’s demise. We called a tree cutter, negotiated a fair price, and had the tree taken down, the stump ground out, and the hole backfilled with black dirt. 

Now we’re nursing the grass seed that’s supposed to be growing where the tree stood. I say supposed to be  because in mid-summer that’s easier said than done. Spring and fall are when you get the ‘best catch’ at seeding a lawn —   summer, ah, is more challenging. We’ve had to buy and hook up a sprinkler, monitor day-to-day how moist the soil is to get the seed to germinate, move the hose to mow the rest of the lawn, sow additional seed in those glaringly bald spots – and, be patient.     

Whether you are a homeowner trying not to have the crummiest lawn on the block or a farmer expending a lot of time and energy in planting hundreds of acres and nurturing fields of corn or soybeans or whatever —   success hinges on the seed doing its thing. That seed needs, in the right proportion moisture, warmth, and sunlight to sprout, otherwise – no plant. Amazingly, the Creator has built all that into that package.  The grower needs to be patient and trust. 

All these factors come together in our lessons with their emphasis on the seed of the Word working in the human heart to yield faith in Jesus. Isaiah 55:10 records the Lord’s promise, “As the rain and snow come down from heaven … so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty …”. The Word of God has its own curious, built-in power to bring about the desired results. Our text is a case-in-point. 

Acts 18:1-11 examines this issue from the human perspective. Luke, author of Acts, hands us a snapshot of Paul the great missionary in a moment of professional crisis. He’s been scattering the seed all over Greece and now he’s in Corinth, telling people about the Savior Jesus. But the seed doesn’t seem to be growing. Paul is perplexed. One sentence of our text even makes it seem as if he's lost patience altogether. That runs counter to our perception of Paul, doesn’t it? Paul is the guy who is not about to let anything rattle him. He’s the guy who said, “I can do all things do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  He’s the guy who would write in Second Corinthians about ministers of the Word, “… our competence comes from God.”  However, here he appears anything but sure that the seed of the Word is going to grow. He’s frustrated and fearful, even while he’s trying to be faithful. 

This picture of Paul running-on-empty is insightful for us because of how God fills his Apostle with hope.  “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you ...” . Jesus gave Paul a much-needed shot of spiritual adrenaline and our Lord does that for us when we struggle in similar moments of doubtfulness.
 
Here’s the background to Acts chapter 18. By the time Paul reaches Corinth, he has already faced beatings, floggings, imprisonment, humiliation, a riot, and a city that thought he and his message were really strange (that was Athens). All of that has transpired within the span of just a few weeks from time Paul set foot on the European continent. When Paul arrived in Corinth, you have to wonder what was going through his mind (???). 
The mission work had been rocky in most places, but still God had caused a small congregations come together. Like Hansel’s and Gretel’s breadcrumbs in the forest, there was a trail of believers throughout Greece leading here to Corinth. Now, Paul had hit “the big time.” In Paul’s day Athens was past peak, a city of maybe only 10,000 inhabitants residents - not large. Corinth, on the other hand, was big and bad! It was a commercial hub with a population of 100,000 plus! It also had a reputation for immorality that would make Las Vegas blush. The people there needed the Savior from sin Paul was preaching.

On arriving Paul met a couple of believing tentmakers, Aquila and Priscilla. They welcomed him into their home. Paul did his own share of tentmaking with them, but he was first and foremost a missionary. So he went to his fellow Jews, people familiar the Old Testament, who spoke the same language and had the same customs, people who were looking for the coming of the Savior as he had. “Every Sabbath Paul reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade both Jews and Greeks.”  He wanted them to see what he had seen, to know what he knew about this Jesus. He wanted them to know that Jesus was their living Savior who had fulfilled all of God’s prophecies. Paul was so focused on this task that when his co-workers Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul stopped making tents and “devoted himself to preaching the word and testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.”   

But sometimes no matter how much seed you scatter, the results appear meager. Many of Paul’s Jewish hearers turned a deaf ear. Then they stepped it up and actively opposed Paul’s message and became abusive —   slandering him, blaspheming his so-called Messiah, and rejecting the gospel of Christ. They tried to silence Paul by their abuse. Paul does something that we might take to be out-of-character – almost seems to ‘lose it.’ He is so perturbed by the response of his critics that “…he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.””  For the sake of the gospel, for his own soul’s sake, and for the sake of the souls of those who did believe, Paul left his countrymen behind (not an easy thing to do). Paul was going to take the gospel to those who would listen, even if they were unbelieving pagans.

He actually didn’t go too far, maybe 30 feet. He went next door to the synagogue, to the home of Titius Justus, a Greek ‘worshiper of God’ who’d been attending synagogue services. That home was quickly transformed into a house church. There Paul began to preach and to teach about Jesus, the Savior who died to bring peace with God and forgiveness for guilt, the Savior who lives to break the chains of sin, the Savior who lives to give sight to those lost in darkness, the Savior who lives to give life that lasts forever.  Paul sowed the seed and it took root among the Gentiles! “… many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.” Even Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in Jesus. The Lord was richly blessing this mission work!

But, then, the pattern suddenly seemed too familiar. In a moment of serious reflection Paul stopped short.  Celebration over the gospel’s success was tempered with realism. Was he about to experience again what he had experienced in Philippi or Thessalonica? Would a mob rise up against him? Would angry people with red faces and jets of stream shooting out their ears get him thrown into jail or run out of town? Paul was waiting for the proverbial ‘next shoe to drop.’ 

Forgive the Lord’s Apostle if in this moment he was starting to feel burned out, worn down, alone, … even afraid after enduring so much. Have a little heart for this gun-shy man of God starting to have doubts about his work. You’ve met other ministers of the Word in the midst of what I earlier termed a ‘professional crisis’—    Elijah under a broom tree in the desert. The sower was conflicted; but the seed grows. 
  
“… [my word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” As we puzzle-piece together these experiences of Paul over the past two months, we can conclude that – yes! – this is why Jesus feels it necessary to pay Paul a visit … at night … in a vision. This is the Apostle’s ‘gentle whisper moment.’  Into Paul’s doubt, into his weariness, into his hesitation, and into his fear came, Jesus came with a message of peace: “Don’t be afraid…”. Throughout Scripture, our Savior has always used those words to calm the troubled hearts of his fearful people. The Lord spoke those words when he appeared to his people in the Old Testament. Jesus spoke them to his disciples during his ministry and a form of them to his disciples after his resurrection. They’re words of peace for fearful hearts.

Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.  For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”  The sower was urged to continue his work of sowing because success resided in the see. Jesus urged Paul to proclaim far and wide the gospel without fear. Why?  Jesus was right there with him, protecting him, and blessing him. It wouldn’t be déjà vu all over again as Yogi Berra once said.  Paul could settle in there at Corinth and start bringing in the harvest. With fears silenced, Paul “stayed there a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.”

Are there times when you feel like Paul … worn down, tired of the grind, tired of the struggle? Do you periodically, given what’s going on in your life – the seven Monday’s in a row, the gray skies that refuse to part, sense that you are fast approaching the point of throwing in the towel —   or throw up your hands in exasperation? As confident as you and I might think we are, feelings of uncertainty and frustration and hesitation do hit us now and again. They are part of the Christian experience … our living as the redeem of God in this still sin-corrupted world. These feeling threaten to undermine our trust in God’s guidance. They may even begin to lead us to question our Father’s love for us. These fears come naturally to us all. 

But —   and here’s the big “BUT.” But we are never left alone to cope with these crushing struggles.  Into such doubt, into such weariness, into such loneliness, into such hesitation, comes Jesus, our living Savior and Lord.  He brings words filled with peace that quiet all our fears:  “Don’t be afraid … for I am with you… ” —   the very same words Jesus uses here to silence Paul’s fears. Behind those words is a guarantee, a guarantee made when Jesus put himself in your place under that crushing burden of life’s struggles; a guarantee made when Jesus took all your doubts and fears and worries and uncertainties and put them on himself on the cross; a guarantee made when Jesus abandoned his tomb on Easter morning. He came out of the tomb, but all those doubts, fears, worries; all that loneliness and uncertainty stayed inside – along with your and my sin, guilt, and death. In so doing, Jesus brings peace to our fearful hearts.
 
Because we serve a living Lord Jesus, you can get up in the morning and carry out the unique calling God has given you in your Christian life right now. Those callings vary for each of us, depending on what season of life you happen to be in and what role you occupy:  parent, grandparent, husband, wife, student, mentor, friend, fellow church member. God has set you into that position and he allows you now to extend his love to others. You needn’t live in fear or question what will be, but instead faithful carry out the work God has given you in his strength —   to live his love in every aspect of your life. You can even tell others about their Savior so they know why Jesus died and lives today. You can tell others in the confidence that God’s Word works. Sow the seed and trust its power.

Amen.

 

Matthew 11:25-20 "REST FOR THE WEARY IN JESUS"
July 19, 2020 - Pentecost 7


   At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
  “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”


I’m going to read some familiar words for you. Can you tell me where they are found?
 
                                                                Give me your tired, your poor,
                                                                Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
                                                                The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
                                                                Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
                                                                I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
 
Too easy, perhaps – especially with that last line. These are the words of poem by Emma Lazarus and they are found on a cast bronze plaque fixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty. To my knowledge the cancel culture crowd hasn’t advocated tearing down “Lady Liberty” – and that’s a good thing! For nearly 250 years now the United States has been offering rest and peace for ‘huddled masses’ longing to be free. Our country has a reputation for being a land of opportunity. Immigrants by the hundreds of thousands still long for the blessings of peace and prosperity America provides.

Listen to even greater words of freedom, peace and rest, etched forever on the pages of Scripture: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus offers rest for the weary – a rest and peace that nothing else in this world can offer. The 4th century church father, Augustine, wrote,

 
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

When you have a right relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ you have the peace and rest of knowing you are loved by the true God in this life and all eternity. I long for more of this peace and rest in my life, and I’m sure the same is also true for you as well.
 
1. Some don’t want this rest
 
Ironically, Jesus spoke these words to people who did not want the perfect peace and rest that he had come to bring. We read, “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. …’”.  “At that time” refers to the time when Jesus warned the residents of Capernaum, Bethsaida, Korazin – the towns and villages in what was ‘ground zero’ of his earthly ministry – warned these people that Sodom and Gomorrah would have an easier time of it in the Final Judgment because they had rejected him. They wanted nothing to do with the true peace and rest he was offering free of charge. Oh, they wanted the peace and rest that come with prosperity. When he fed 5000 with five barley loaves and two small fish, they immediately had ambitions to forcibly persuade Jesus to become  their king who could then give them whatever they wanted. But when they came to do that and he refused, they walked away in disgust.

Yet did you notice that Jesus praised his Father for hiding the real blessings of peace and forgiveness from the “wise and learned, and reveal[ing] them to little children”? In Romans 1 we are told that people remain blind to the real blessings the Lord has for them because stubbornly and blindly want to continue in their unbelieving state. Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” In its sinfully corrupt state the human heart cannot but reject the gospel. It is adamant there is no god – at least no personal, relatable God who created everything and rules the universe to this day.

So, for example, in the estimation of the wise and learned of our day, it’s not an efficient and productive use of one’s time to pray to God for an end to our pandemic —   it’s better to ‘work the science’ and ratchet up the research labs of our pharmaceutical companies and come up with a vaccine. Although God has given us an awesome promise: “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” that means little or nothing. Likewise, the natural human heart turns a ‘thumbs down’ to what God offers in Jesus:  the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation – those real blessings which have no par with anything on earth.

Yet, Jesus praised his Father for taking these real blessings and giving them to “little children.” Who are they? You and me! Jesus thought so much little children. He had a soft spot in his heart for them, was eager to take them up in his arms, and even said:  “… the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” It’s a miracle of grace that God can take the mind of a wise and learned person and give that individual the faith and trust of a little child. It’s not that they give up their intelligence and become spiritual dolts. Rather, they’re born again by water and the Spirit. As a little baby learns to trust his or her parents as they hold him or her close, so God plants child-like faith and trust in people such as us so that we believe that his words are true. This is what God wants for everybody, as Jesus acknowledges, “Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

Listen as Jesus next inserts himself into that parent-child illustration. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” From eternity Jesus was fully committed to carrying out his Father’s plan. The two are on the same page – more so than any two individuals have been! They have one will and one goal:  our salvation. John writes, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” With our limited human reason, we can’t grasp the love that existed between the Father and the Son from eternity. Before he died Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” This glory and this love between the two go beyond anything we mortals know, but Jesus came here to let us be part of both and to experience his peace and rest now and forever.  That Jesus wants this for all people, he makes clear in saying, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  

2. Jesus wants to give this rest to all.
 
To prove further that Jesus wants all people to find this peace and rest in him and his Father, listen again to his beautiful invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

“Come to me …” Jesus says. He doesn’t invite us to seek out other religions as equal paths by which we can get close to our God and experience his love in our lives. He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me."  He says, “Come ...”, and those gracious words work inside of us causing us to change our thinking, creating in us the trust and the faith of a little child.

Jesus invites all who are “weary and burdened.” Every one of us is afflicted with a huge burden – the sense that we really do need to measure up to God’s expectations (keep his law, follow all the ‘rules and regs’) to be accepted by him. But Jesus did not say, “Come to me all you who’ve got it together, or all you who are doing great and are model Christians.” The invitation goes out to people like us who share the burden of Paul who wrote about the restlessness and lack of peace in his life: “… what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

And what does Jesus promise? Rest. The Hebrew word for rest is “Sabbath.” Genesis tells that after six days of creation God rested on Day Seven. The Lord used that day to admire the splendor of all the work he’d accomplished. ‘Wow, what a masterpiece!’ he thought – not in pride, but with a sense of satisfaction because he had created it all for us. And now God wants people like you and me to take time and enjoy all those very real blessings he provides for us in Jesus.

Jesus’ invitation continues:  “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The rest you have in Jesus is a wonderful rest, but it’s also a burden – which is a paradox, a contradiction. For the unbelieving world says, ‘find your peace and rest in the pleasures of this life, … or in your relationships with other people, … or even in yourself’ – and believing in Jesus is dismissed as a crutch. To face that opposition and be looked at askance because of our faith in Jesus is a burden we bear. It is a “yoke” placed over our shoulders, but it’s a light burden and an easy yoke.

We are not that removed from pioneering days in this country. Somewhere in the Village of Yesteryear at the Steele County History Center you’ll find a yoke (at least the picture of one). It’s that heavy wooden beam a farmer used to join two draft animals together – a pair of oxen, the strongest of animals, was typically your best bet. With that arrangement the farmer was well able to break the virgin prairie soil of his homestead. A yoke made a difficult task easier. Jesus’ yoke illustration speaks to our partnership with him and how what is otherwise difficult without him becomes easy with him. Joined to Jesus we're in a position to deal with anything life throws at us – especially this opposition from the world. We are able to face all things, even the future, unafraid.

Isn’t it something how – especially here in our country – people are unnerved by the pandemic? They’re anxious and frazzled. I recently came across an article from an advice column in the newspaper, an “Ask Amy” article. Let me share it with you. It is titled:  PANICKED ABOUT COVID:
 

Dear Amy: I need advice on how to handle a neighbor situation.

The elderly lady across the street, who has always been a little crotchety, has now utterly lost it. She prowls the neighborhood, looking for “COVID violations.”
 
Two neighbors talking from opposite sides of the street get 10 minutes of screaming profanities because, in her mind, social distancing means not socializing at all.

She has called the police on another neighbor so many times that the cops told her not to do it again. The reason? There were three cars parked in his driveway. He has his daughter’s family staying with him, which she considers “a party.”

My parents came over for my father’s birthday and she called the police on us, reporting an “unsafe large gathering spreading the virus.”

She has also called the police on lone joggers without a mask and gloves, even though she herself doesn’t wear them.
She has now set up video cameras conspicuously around her lawn, one of which is pointing directly at our house. She has commented that she can see in our windows and has berated us for not wearing a mask and gloves … in our own home!

My husband has suggested that we start mooning out the window. I would prefer a solution that doesn’t involve her having photos of our naked backsides. I also don’t want to be forced to keep the curtains closed.

How can we reason with the unreasonable?  (Signed: COVID Fishbowl)

 
Amy had an answer. As a bottom line she wrote this:
 

Live your life. Do not “moon” her. Stay calm and polite if forced to interact with her. Imagine what it must feel like to be in such a state of rage over things you cannot control. Avoid her and (if possible) feel sorry for her.
 
Now, I’m not suggesting that as Christians we simply kick back and, with a cold drink in hand, sit under a shade tree in our backyard totally unfazed, unconcerned. But the fact we’ll want to keep foremost in our minds is that God’s got this covered. He’s been through every pandemic throughout time and has used each for his good purposes. God took care of his people long ago in Old Testament times and he will take care of us today. He has promised to stand beside us: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” The psalm writer confessed, “My times are in your hands” and “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” We’re not going to get to heaven one minute earlier or later than God has planned for us. The writer of Psalm 125 established that truth so beautifully, saying: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.”
 
Are you PANICKED ABOUT COVID?  Friends, don’t stress. Jesus wants everyone to enjoy his rest and he's given it to you. Look who is yoked with you and listen to what he tells you:  “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” You don’t have to sweat the little or the big stuff. You’re not alone. The Jesus who gives you peace and rest promises to be with you your life to help you and support you. His peace and rest are yours now and forever.

Amen.

 

1 John 2:15-17  "LOVE WHAT LASTS”
July 12, 2020 – Pentecost 6

 
   Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.
   The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.


She had been a woman of means before. Now 75 years old, she lived in a small, modestly furnished house behind her son’s home. She and her late husband had owned a large, spacious home on acreage in the Texas hill country. They had accumulated a lot of possessions from their travels, a perk of working in the c-suite of a large multinational corporation. But, following her huband’s death, she made the concious decision to downsize. In fact, she confided to the pastor who served at her new church-home: “It hit me one day that I didn’t really get anything from all this stuff around me. Without my husband here it meant very little to me. So, I just sold it all.  Everything! I sold the land, the house, and everything in it. I told my son, ‘I just want a little house with one of everything.’” Then, growing more serious, she said, “And you know what the funny thing is, pastor? As each possession sold, I felt a little bit closer to God. It turns out that all those things were between him and me, and I never knew it.”

In that moment of full disclosure, the smile on her face witnessed to a long-sought sense of contentment.  She was at peace. Unfettered – free of ‘all that stuff’ – she understood what the Apostle John tells us here: “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  ...  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”  Isn’t that spiritually mature perspective about the things around us admirable, something we would want for ourselves? The Bible truth brought home in this brief text is “LOVE WHAT LASTS.”    
 
Few temptations have troubled believers through the centuries more than worldliness. There are a lot reasons for this. First, we’re surrounded by the world. Even if we climbed aboard a SpaceX Dragon capule and rocketed up to the International Space Station we couldn’t escape it. It’s what we see and sense. We can touch it and hold it.  Apart from divine revelation and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, it’s the only reality we can grasp. Second, the world offers what our sinful natures long for:  instant gratification.  The promises of God on the other hand are heavily weighted toward the future and eternity. Third, in an effort to be ‘relevant’ – in misguided attempts to “become all things to all men” – the church has frequently become like the world rather than the light of the world. Finally, the love of the world is a dangerous temptation for Christians because Satan would like us to believe we can both love the world and love God.  But John makes it clear they are mutually exclusive. You can either love God or you can love the world, but you can’t love both. So, “LOVE WHAT LASTS.” 
  
John wrote this letter to Christians who were being misled and confused by false teachers.  We call these false teachers hell-bent on deceiving God’s people and therefore the object of John’s warning “Gnostics” – derived from the Greek word for knowledge, γν?σις (gnosis).  These false teachers claimed to have a special knowledge that nobody else knew.  But John says that they were still in darkness.  These heretics tried to entice people with promises of the attainment of a higher, more complete Christianity, but their doctrine and life revealed that they didn’t have a clue about God and the way of salvation.  

To refute their claims that true faith is purely subjective and that doctrine and behavior don’t matter, John gave his readers three tests by which they could evaluate these heritics – and their own faith – to see if it was authentic. There was … the ‘moral test’ – obedience; the ‘relational test’ – love for others; and the ‘doctrinal test’ – teaching and believing the historical gospel of Jesus Christ. This section, these verses, is an application of the ‘moral test.’ Authentic faith is marked by obedience and love for God above all things

“Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  We need to define two words. The first word to understand is love, in Greek ?γ?πη (agape)  This type of love is a commitment, an act of the will, rather than a feeling. It is a one-way love. It is the love that caused God to send his Son to die for a hostile world. It is the kind of love husband and wife promise to one another in marriage. And just as you cannot commit to lifelong love for more than one person, so you cannot love God and love the world. It’s impossible to be committed to both.

A second word to define is world, in Greek κ?σμος (cosmos). It originally referred to the well-ordered nature of the universe as the Lord God created it. But here, John uses it to describe the organized system operated by Satan in opposition to Christ and his gospel. Later here in this same letter John would write “we know that … the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”  The world consists of unbelievers whose strings the puppet-master Satan is control – all those who operate on the basis of ungodly thoughts, attitudes, motives, values and goals. The world is everything that stands opposed to Christ, his gospel and his glory.

What, then, does it mean to not love this world?  John doesn’t mean that we are to disparare anything material … you must hate your house, hate your car, hate whatever (although when things break down it’s kinda hard not to hate them). John doesn’t mean that believers should empty their bank accounts, sell all their possessions and live in seclusion and poverty, though through history some have done so. (Think how in the earliest centuries of Christianity some believers pursued an ascetic life, living out in the desert perhaps in primitive communes, away from everything that mighty pollute a person’s thinking. Or, think of how during the Middle Ages monestaries were popular places of retreat from the world and the cloistered life was regarded as particularly pious.) But from what follows it’s clear that John see this love to be renounced and avoided is primarily a matter of attitude and motivation.
“For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.”

Worldliness is an approach to life where sinful desires hold sway. To be worldly means to operate on Satan’s principles. It is to move through life driven by personal ambition, selfishness, greed, and pride. It is to have sinful desires for things you do not have and sinful pride in what you do have. Rather than living to please God who judges the heart, the worldly person tries to impress other people who look only at outward things. Worldiness is the misvaluing of what really ought to be treasured, kept close to one’s heart. Recall Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount where he laid out the contrast like this:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

John’s primary concern is not drawing up a detailed list of positive and negative behaviors so you can check the boxes on all these and leave all those boxes unchecked. No, his concern is why you do what you do. He is interested in motivation. Do you do what you do because you love and want to be loved by the world or because you love and want to be loved by God? Again, it’s just gotta be one or the other because it can’t be both. 


One thing about this choice of which to love:  the world or God —   on our own we would and could never choose to love God.  From birth we were Satan’s children. We were dead to God, blind to his blessings, and hated his will. We were capable only of loving the world, until God stepped in to change things. Later John says in what I’d hope is a familiar Bible verse, “We love because he first loved us.” 

God demonstrated this committed love to the sinful world over and over. God knew exactly what would happen shortly after he created a perfect universe. He knew that the crown of his creation would ruin it by sinning – but he created it anyway. Later when God looked at the world and saw … “that every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time,” he could have scrapped it all and started over – as he proved in the Flood; but in love he preserved Noah and his family so that you and I would have the chance to be born and believe and be saved. God knew exactly the type of world he was sending his Son into by placing him in Mary’s arms – a world that would hate him, reject him, unjustly condemn him and crucify him – but God loved the world enough to sacrifice his Son to save it. God knew your heart, your desires, your sins before you were born, he knew that you would disobey his commands and live as his enemy – but through the waters of Baptism he reached into your heart and he cleansed it, created faith in it, and wrote your name in his Book of Life. You cannot love God and the world, but neither can you choose to love God instead of the world. So God chose you. With his Word and sacrament he created life where there was only death, love where there was only hate, and children where there were enemies. That's grace.  That's God’s love for you. Because God chose to love us, we, in faith, can choose to love him above all things.

From that love residing now in our hearts we begin to make correct valuations and are much more easily able to categorize things under the headings of “keep” and “let go.” Like that 75 year old woman in the story with which we o we make conscious decisions to hold on to God’s gifts of his Word and sacraments, of his forgiveness in Christ, of the hope of life eternal that is ours in Jesus, of the companions with whom we share this journey through life. These are eternal treasures, the things that last. Fairly obvious, then, are also things we can jettison or regard of lesser importance:  our heavily padded retirement accounts, our finely appointed homes, our gizmo-laden cars and SUVs. 

“The world and its desires pass away but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”  Some day all of this stuff that we are tempted to set our hearts on will disappear into nothingness. This world will be destroyed on Judgment Day, along with all those have loved it instead of the Father. We are among those who deserve to receive that eternal destruction, but we will not because of God’s grace. The certainty of our salvation – our hope –  is found in Jesus Christ. The Father sent his Son to be the one who loved him enough to atone for all of our failures. The Father send Jesus to be the One who never once loved the desires and cravings of this world in order to make us righteous. Jesus came and loved his Father in everything, preaching his message, obeying his commands, and fulfilling his mission. Then, in that perfect love for his Father, Jesus gave his life unto death. He died for all of this world’s sins, our sins, sacrificing himself so that we would not be destroyed. Then Jesus was raised to life so we would live forever. An eternity of blessing is what the Lord has in mind to share with us, not some paultry trinkets, but eternal treasures. Jesus once said, “… my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  This is will of God – to believe all this … that Jesus has done it all for you. And this is what makes your and my salvation sure. 
 
Can anything that is of this world offer you anything like this? Can any amount of money, any amount of fun, any amount of ‘good times’ compare to the eternal joys that await you in paradise? Not a chance! “The world and its desires pass away …”, but the grace and mercy of God endure. So, “LOVE WHAT LASTS." Love not what the world gives, but love what the Father offers to you in Christ. Love exclusively what lasts, and you will live forever.

Amen.

 
 

Galatians 5:1-6,13  "FREED TO SERVE"
July 5, 2020 - Independence Day Weekend


   It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
   Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
   You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love.

Independence Day, the Fourth of July, is a day for Americans to rejoice in the precious gift of freedom. It is a day to pay tribute to the men who were instrumental in making it happen. 

We remember those who lived by the determination, “Give me liberty or give me death” (a quote attributed to Patrick Henry in a speech made to the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church, Richmond, VA, in 1775). We acknowledge the statesmen who wrote into our Constitution such a multitude of freedoms – political, personal, and religious – that we can scarcely imagine what life without such privileges would be like. The ‘framers’ of the Constitution were James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay. And although monuments (statues) of some of these men have become targets of derision recently, we are truly indebted to them because without their efforts we would not be truly free.

But there’s also an element of danger in our Fourth of July patriotism – one might almost say, our Fourth of July religion. We tend to think of America as a Christian nation and by many metrics it is. Our coins carry the motto, “In God We Trust.” Is our freedom perhaps a payoff – a reward – for our trust in God? Is freedom an in-born right for the children of God? Do Paul’s words to the Galatians lend support to that idea? Not if we look carefully at what the Apostle is saying. 
 

1. Free in Christ 

When Paul wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” he was writing to people who had very few of the political and personal freedoms we enjoy. Galatia, their homeland in the heart of Asia Minor had been swallowed up by a more powerful nation. The armies of Rome had overrun their land and forcibly incorporated it into their empire. Galatia in Paul’s day was just another Roman province. The people didn’t have the right to self-determination. 

So what was Paul talking about when he says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”? Paul wasn’t a political activist. When he came to Galatia he didn’t agitate for “human rights,” or organize resistance groups, or train freedom fighters. He simply preached the gospel. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” was true of Paul wherever he went. There is something more important than civil liberty; there is the freedom Christ brings:  release from sin and its awful effects; peace with God and the assurance of endless blessing.

History
 recounts the tremendous price paid to secure our American freedoms. The cost was not insignificant for the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Of the fifty-six men who put their names to that piece of parchment five were captured by the British and tortured as traitors before dying. Nine fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the Revolution-ary War. Two lost sons in battle, and another had two sons captured. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Several lost immense holdings and died in poverty. One man, John Hart, had to leave the bedside of his dying wife. His thirteen children had to flee for their lives. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves. He returned home to find his fields and gristmill wasted, his wife dead, and his children vanished. Freedom did not come easily to those men. The love of country demonstrated by their sacrifices makes our patriotism seem slight.Infinitely greater was God’s love for fallen humankind. On his sacred honor God had pledged to do what was necessary to restore our sin-ravaged world. In his Son, God did. Jesus left the glories of heaven to live here for a time to fix what was wrong with people. Because of the tremendous price Christ paid, our lives are changed forever. We are free! 
 
2. Free from the condemnation of God’s Law
 
In the past four, going on five, months we’ve made significant concessions for the sake of the greater good –to try to curtailing the spread of coronavirsus. But it’s inconceivable that Americans would intentionally and with no regard relinquish our hard-won freedoms —  e.g., surrendering to a foreign power. We are committed to safeguarding our liberties and do so passionately. 

Yet Paul was compelled to write to the Galatians because they were dangerously close to doing the inconceivable … with respect to their freedom in Christ. They were teetering on the edge of forfeiting their position as children of God through faith in Jesus. How? Why? 

Shortly after Paul left Galatia, false teachers showed up. These false teachers are sometimes called “Judaizers,” because they insisted on the observance of the rituals and way of life prescribed for God’s ancient people, the Jews. Their emphasis on a slavish obedience to the Law – in the minds of these false teachers – was truly honoring the Lord and showing yourself to a genuine descendant of Abraham. But, in fact, by telling the Galatains that they had to do more than trust in Jesus alone … they had to keep the Law inviolate, down to the last little detail … they were undermining gospel message of grace alone. You can hear Paul’s stern warning, “Stand firm and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  

God’s Law was expressed in various, somewhat overlapping forms:  the ceremonial law pertained to Israel’s worship life; the civil law pertained to Israel’s organization and functioning as a society; and the moral law spelled out right and wrong. (This is the aspect of the Law with which we’re most familiar because of its summary in the Ten Commandments).   The Law had good, wholesome purposes. It exposed sin. It regulated human behavior. It identified problems needing correction. One thing the Law was never intended to do was save sinners. It wasn’t a fix-it plan! It couldn’t repair the broken relationship that existed with God because of man’s inherent sinfulness.

The Ten Commandments, for all their simplicity and common-sense approach to a well-ordered life —   the Ten Commandments just can’t make a person right with God. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can do that. So the Apostle Paul was essentially telling the Galatians, “Accept no substitutes. Jesus is your Savior. Look to him. Don’t ever let go of him. Your freedom in Christ is far too valuable!”

We need to remember this when the ‘Judaizer within’ (our self-righteous Old Adam) suggests that ‘I’m not so bad, certainly better than the person nextdoor’ – the attitude of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. We do not save ourselves through our imagined upright life, our noble thoughts, our kind words, our charitable deeds. There is one Savior —   Jesus. Jesus did what was impossible for us morally-inept, powerless-to-correct-our-lost-conditioned sinners. He lived in perfect holiness before God. No slip-of-the-tongue debauched word ever crossed his lips. No hateful, lustful, or prideful thought ever entered his mind. He 100% obeyed his Father’s will. Jesus lived this exceptional life in our place and then he died the death we had coming. For us Jesus fulfilled the requirements of God’s Law, and so set us free from them, those requirements. Paul told the Christians at Rome, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

To live in a free country, with freedom of speech, free enterprise, freedom to chose a path —   that is fantastic! But to be a member of God’s kingdom and to be … free of the demands of God’s Law, free of an accusing conscience, free of pressure to try to earn one's salvation because it's already been given to you. That is an infinitely greater freedom. That is the freedom to which we have been called in Christ.


3. Free to serve our fellowman

But the Apostle Paul also alerts us to the fact that we have not only been set free from something; we’ve been set free for something. He concludes, “Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” As Christians our focus is certainly upward. We are oh-so-grateful to an incredibly gracious God for the Savior he has sent. But our focus is also outward as we look around us to see those we are able to help as we give expression to our love for Christ. We’ve been set free of the demands of the Law so that we might freely do what God wants – his will – and serve each other. Paul makes that clear in the words, “Serve one another in love,” going on in the very next verse to elaborate:  “The entire law is summed up in a single command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Martin Luther the Reformer wrestled a long time with matter of being right with God. If you’re familiar with his story you might recall it was a very personal struggle, an agonizing one —   as Luther thought, “I just can’t be good enough! As hard as I try, I just can’t please God and he will never let me into his heaven.” Like most people, like those false teachers who came to Galatia who were hung up on the fulfilling the demands of God’s law down to the last detail, Luther felt that having a right relationship with God was all up ‘on him’ ... on his back. His behavior, good or bad, was the sole determiner of whether he would spend eternity with or apart from God. 

When Luther discovered the truth that God counts the sinner righteous for Jesus’ sake, Luther was set free. He became a changed person with new directions and goals. He saw his life as an opportunity to thank to God for rescuing him in his Son. On learning that the Greek word for “freedom” (elueqeria) sounded very much like his own last name, Luther, he went around calling himself “Martin Freedom” – not because he wanted generate publicity for himself, but because he wanted to teach those who would hear what he had learned from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The old Martin lived no longer; a new Martin was now in charge.

A chapter earlier in this same letter, Paul wrote this about the sinful nature which used to control him:  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The gospel message transformed Paul completely. He went from being a ‘Jesus-chaser’ (a rabid persecutor) to being a ‘Jesus-follower’ (a passionate disciple). We, too, take on in Christ new identity, an identity that gladly and eagerly seeks to do God’s will.

Nowhere does the heart set free by faith in Christ have greater freedom to love and serve one’s neighbor than in a free country. So we pray in one of our more commonly used prayers of the church:  "Almighty God, grant to your church your Holy Spirit and the wisdom which comes down from above, that your Word may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people that in steadfast faith we may serve you and in the confession of your name abide to the end through Jesus Christ our Lord."

In America, the land of liberty, we may share the good news of a Savior wherever, whenever, and with whomever we please. There is no one to whom we may not speak, no one whom we may not help, no place where we may not go and serve in Christ’s name.
 
In observing another Independence Day – especially under these highly unusual circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic and all the societal drama that’s playing out, let’s not take lightly God’s blessing of freedom. We are are politically free people. This is the setting in which the Lord lets us exercise to the full our spiritual freedom – the freedom to show our love for him by a life of service to our family, church, community, and country.

Amen.


Number 27:15-23  “SHEPHERDS WHO LEAD AT THE LORD'S DIRECTION”
Pentecost 4 – June 28, 2020

  “Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
   So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him.  Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.”
   Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the Lord instructed through Moses.

   
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has a cult-like following of fans who devour (obsess over) his cooking shows. My brother-in-law is one of them. He is an avid watcher of programs such as Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen, and The F-word (the “f” stands for “food”). The programs air on Hulu®, Netflix®, and elsewhere.

One of Ramsay’s shows featured a segment running over a several seasons where he taught his children where their food comes from. They raised different kinds of animals in the back garden of their London home. They raised five turkeys. No problems there. The turkeys just needed a pen and some feed. Then they raised a couple of pigs. Again, no problem, because all the pigs needed was a pen, a hut, and some mud. But then they tried raising two Welsh lambs and their mothers in their back garden and quickly realized why being a shepherd is a fulltime job.

What could be so challenging about keeping a few sheep for a few months, when all that’s needed is grass and water? Well, two weeks in —   all of sudden, their lawn was gone! Apparently they had underestimated how quickly the sheep would look up at him as if to say, “So now what do we eat?”  Gordon Ramsay was discovering first-hand why shepherds’ lives are fully occupied moving their flock from hill to hill to pasture. It’s not to stave off boredom, but because when sheep stop moving they quickly deplete everything they need to survive.  

Ramsay had to find another patch of grass for his sheep to keep eating, and needed to do it fast. The sheep were moved from one posh London backyard garden to another with the same results. Finally, the four ravenous sheep were moved to a country estate where they had plenty of grass to live out the rest of their lives in luxury. Pperhaps not the most practical solution, but a happy TV ending.
 
Now to the point:  sheep need a shepherd.  Without a shepherd constantly tending them and leading them to pasture, the sheep wouldn’t thrive. They would probably die.

I am sure you noticed that we have nearly identical statements in our readings. As Jesus looked out over the crowds streaming toward him, his compassionate heart went out to them “because they were … like sheep without a shepherd.” Much earlier Moses expressed a similar concern for the Israelites as he considered his immanent departure. After forty years of leading these people, his time at the helm was at an end. They were near their final destination, but not there yet. Like Gordon Ramsay’s sheep, they needed to keep moving and find a pasture/home. Who would pick up the mantle of leadership? Who would be his successor? Moses prayed:  “Appoint a man over this community …, so that the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

We pull these thoughts together under the theme “SHEPHERDS WHO LEAD AT THE LORD’S DIRECTION” and note two truths … 1) in humility, they don’t think of themselves as irreplaceable; … 2) in confidence, they serve with their God-given abilities.

1. In humility, they don’t think of themselves as irreplaceable.

After trying to lead the people of Israel for so long —  after originally being saved from drowning in the waters of the Nile and brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, after murdering an Egyptian and fleeing into the desert –only to be told by a burning bush to return and tell the Israelites that God was about to set them free, after leading the people across the parted sea to Mount Sinai where the Ten Commandments and chapter upon chapter of the Lord’s words delivered to him, after putting up with the people’s stubbornness and unwillingness to put their total trust in God; and after leading them from place to place in the wilderness, mobilizing soldiers to fight off potential attacks and subduing armies so that they could come to the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses’ job was done. He had shepherded these people, with varying degrees of success, through an entire generation.

Now, all of those – give or take – who had originally come out of Egypt were gone. All of those included in the census that started the book of Numbers, all those who had seen the power of God release them from their captivity —   their lives had come to an end. God had promised the Israelites a homeland grander than they could ever possibly have hoped for, but nearly all would never set foot in it.

Moses had learned that this would be his fate. An incident back at Meribah, when he acted in anger in the presence of the people and struck a rock with his staff to bring forth water (God had told him to speak to the rock) —  that disobedience would bar his entrance. Aaron, Moses’ brother, had already been “gathered to his people” on a mountaintop in nearby Edom. Now it was Moses’ turn to climb Mount Nebo, survey the sweeping vista of the land below, and die.

Moses might’ve objected. “Hold on! We’re almost to Canaan. It's just over there and, God, you mean to tell me you’re not going to let me in and my services are no longer needed?” But Moses didn’t object. He bent his will to God’s will. In humility, he did not think himself irreplaceable.

As he prepared himself mentally for all of this, Moses thought about his people’s future. He knew them well. While the Lord has done great things for them in the wilderness, still everyone who saw the full extent of God’s care and protection, everyone who was there when God led them out of their slavery in Egypt, was gone. Their past was simply a story told around the campfire. And if leading those who had actually seen God’s work in Egypt was hard enough, who could possibly try to lead those who only knew of these things from the memories of their parents and grandparents —  who could lead a generation of people whose lives have been shaped by their parents’ complaining and stubbornness, those whose lives have been saddled with the inherited baggage of their parents’ lack of faith? If Moses had a hard enough time with the first generation, who could possibly lead the second? So, he makes this request: “Appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” In short, “I know that I’m replaceable, but provide these people with a replacement – another shepherd – who will lead them on.”

It is hubris (sinful pride) that causes us to think we are irreplaceable, to imagine that God would be lost without us. He loves us dearly – in Christ. What a sacrifice he made so that we could belong to his family – his own Son, offered up, for us. Marvel at that!

In grace God slots us, his people, into vital positions where he includes us in his mission. I’m a parent who trains up a child in the way he or she should go. I’m a grandparent who tries to set a Christian example for my grandkids. I’m a church member who cares about the spiritual life of a brother or sister in Christ when he or she is struggling or tempted or despondent and in need of encouragement.  Maybe I don’t have the highly exalted opinion of myself that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did, but I do have a sinful nature that can easily protest God’s decisions, insist I know at least a little bit better, and put my agenda of his.

You know what happens in a situation such as that? Other people often get run. Moses really laid into the people at Meribah. “Listen, you rebels …”, he bellowed. No shepherd’s compassion there and God’s judgment was just: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” The shepherd had tripped over his own staff and fallen spread-eagle on the ground. Yet, in grace, picked God Moses up, dusted him off – forgaving him for the promised Savior’s sake, and allowed him to continue.   

On returning to ancient Rome victorious generals rode in triumph through the city to the people’s cheers. A slave, it is said, would be positioned in the conquering hero’s chariot just behind him and, holding a laurel wreath over his head, would whisper two words, “Memento mori” … “Remember you are mortal.” If you are in a position of leadership or influence, or if you are part of a team that must work cooperatively, operate with an honest self-assessment. Pastors need to do this, too, because they are subject to the temptation to let ego run wild. None of us are not irreplaceable, but all of us are indespensible. (I’ll let you chew on that momentarily.)

God has not founded his church on you or on me, but on Jesus. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are under-shepherds, who serve at the Lord’s direction.

2. In confidence, they serve with their God-given abilities.

So the mantle is passed to Joshua, ... Joshua, one of the two spies (out of the original twelve) sent to scope out Canaan; ... one of only two who actually was willing to trust that God would allow them to conquer the land; ... one of only two, who, opposing the rest, said, “The Lord wouldn’t have led us here simply to let us fall.” Joshua had proved faithful at a point when nearly all those around him had turned their backs. Now faithful Joshua is given the task of leading Israel into the Promised Land. He will be their next shepherd.

Did you catch what God said? A public investiture would allow all of Israel to know this was God’s choice and that commissioning is described to us, but Moses is told, “Give him some of your authority … .” Joshua wasn’t going to be Moses’ clone. He wouldn’t slip on another man’s sandals. Joshua had his own size 13’s to fill. He was an experienced military man with a grasp of battlefield tactics and a head full of the strategies of war because those things were needed in Israel’s next shepherd.

The same can be said of the shepherds God provides to his church, those men who pastor God’s flock in a given congregation. Our Seminary doesn’t produce cookie-cutter pastors, indistinguishable from each other in terms of personality, skill-sets possessed, or ministry interests. All the basic requirements are there, with a man’s God-given abilities refined and honed over time through use and experience.  

Joshua would go forward to lead Israel in the confidence that the Lord was with him and would make him more than equal to the challenges ahead. He heard that in words which God himself spoke by way of encouragement as he assumed his new office:  “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give. … Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

But just because the people are about to enter the Promised Land, that doesn’t mean things are suddenly going to get easy. Joshua, for all his faithfulness, is still the product of his generation, a generation used to wielding the sword and securing peace through force. He will shepherd God’s people. He will lead them in, but it will be a messy story, not for the faint-hearted. There will be a stunning victory at Jericho and a crushing defeat at Ai, where a bad-apple named Achan will spoil everything and be Israel’s undoing, at least temporarily. Read on through Numbers and into the account of Israel’s conquests in the book that bears Joshua’s name and you will find battle upon battle was required to take the land. And you might come away a misperception – that it was solely might of arms by which Israel achieved its goal. It wasn’t. “See, I have given you this land,” God said; he was responsible. Joshua, the shepherd, led the people at the Lord’s direction.  
 
Yet, is this alone the kind of shepherd God desires to lead his people – one that meets violence with violence in a never ending power-struggle? Or does God ultimately want his people to put their faith in a different kind of Shepherd, one who on all fronts could be called not just a shepherd, but a good shepherd, not one who would clear the field of the wolves ... meeting violence with violence, but one who would lay down his life for the sheep ... showing them that there’s a whole other way to live and teaching them to follow God into the future?

Jesus is that Shepherd. In our Gospel Lesson, gaze into his face and see his longing to help the hurting. Stretch out your hand and put it on his chest. Feel his Savior’s heart beating – pulsing – with love divine that is determined to rescue and redeem. Jesus knows what these souls need:  the gospel of his Father’s forgiveness.

Jesus invited his disciples’ participation in this effort, “Ask the Lord of the harvest … to send out workers into his harvest field,” and these shepherds-in-training became part of the answer to their own prayers. We are, the continuing fulfilment of those prayers. So labor on that place where God has put you, whether as a parent teaching Scripture’s saving truths to children in your home, or as a grandparent delicately trying to encourage a grandchild because mom or dad don’t quite ‘get it,’ as a church member who has the opportunity to offer solid, biblical counsel – and so encourage – a brother or sister. Fulfill your role, but do so with our Savior’s compassion, using the gifts you’ve been given – the foremost among those gifts being your Savior’s own words and promises. See, you and I aren't irreplaceable, but we are indespensible.

We are limiting our worship hymn choices to two. If I had allowed myself the leeway to pick three, I would have chosen Christian Worship # 491. The first and last stanza of that hymn read …
 
O Master of the loving heart,
The friend of all in need,
We pray that we may be like you
In thought and word and deed.
 
Oh, grant us hearts like yours, dear Lord,
So joyous, free, and true,
That all your children, ev’rywhere.
Be drawn by us to you.
 
Fellow shepherds, slip in your size 13s (or whatever size you wear). Grab you staff. Sheep need a shepherd. Lead God’s sheep and God’s lambs into his truth.

This is God’s recipe for success, for the spread of his gospel and the growth of his kingdom.

Amen.

 


Matthew 7:15-29  “WATCH OUT FOR FALSE PROPHETS”
Pentecost 2 – June 14, 2020

  “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
  “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
   When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

 
Starting in 2003 the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the part of the US Treasury Department charged with issuing our paper currency, began including enhanced security features on various denominations – first the $20 bill, then the $10 bill, $5 bill, and finally the $100 bill. You might remember noticing the subtle, but highly technologically advanced changes introduced, all intended to make counterfeiting more difficult:  watermarks matching the profile of the individual on the face of the bill that become visible when held up to the light, small holographic-type images that change color from copper to green, and a thin colored security ribbon with images that shift as the bill is tilted. These new security features are deterrents in the production of the funny money that costs consumers billions of dollars each year.

Still, people are still foolish enough to try to make money the illegal way. In 2016 an international ring of counterfeiters produced $70,000,000 worth of bogus $100 bills. These foreign nationals set up shop in New Jersey outside New York City and on high-speed presses cranked off sheets of near perfect bills using engraved plates, even altering serial numbers and treasury seals. It was a sophisticated operation. A low-tech, but creative approach was used by a 34 year old mother of six, Tarshema Brice, who was arrested in 2014 for printing $20,000 worth of fake bills in the kitchen of her home.  She took $5 bills with a specific watermark, soaked them in a degreaser, used a toothbrush to scrub the ink off the paper and then on her HP inkjet printer printed scanned images of $50 or $100 bills.

If a fake bank note winds up in your pocket or purse, you’re on the hook. Neither a merchant, nor a bank, nor the government is under any obligation to exchange it. So it’s sad when someone gets stuck with counterfeit cash. Sadder still is when someone gets stuck with a counterfeit christ peddled by a false prophet. That’s the situation Jesus envisions in our Gospel. He warns: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”  Today we examine Jesus’ warning, as if studying the intricacies of a newly-release dollar bill, because we don’t want to be stuck with what’s spiritually worthless, a detriment to our soul’s welfare.
 
It’s near the end of his Sermon on the Mount that Jesus issues this warning against wolves in sheep’s clothing. Over the span of three chapters (five, six, and seven) Matthew records the Sermon on the Mount where our Savior has talked about the blessedness of following him.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  ...  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Jesus described God’s people as salt and light.  He taught about prayer and invited, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  And just prior to our text, he made this appeal, “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  Far too precious are the gifts of God’s grace to relinquish them voluntarily or to have stripped from us by rip-off artists – by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

False teachers, preachers and friends come across as nice people. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. Make no mistake, they’re dangerous! They deny the truth of God’s plain Word. They substitute sand for the solid rock of Christ. Their fruit – that which is revealed by their conduct and teaching – is rotten. It’s bad fruit.

Jesus continued, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

God actually devotes a fair amount of the Scriptures to warning us against people who will play fast and loose with God’s Word, who treat the Bible like a wax nose bending this way or bent to suit to their liking. They’re dangerous Jesus says, because students of false teachers are doomed to share the same eternal destruction as their teachers. Peter cautioned the believers of his day, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you.  hey will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves.”

So what kind of false teachers do we encounter today?  You can access a broad swath of preachers on television and the internet, some are what we could be termed ‘plain vanilla’ preachers with a meager following – attracting the curious and a few faithful; others have achieved an almost celebrity status, building an ecclesiastical empire.  One preacher, the most popular in America today, holds forth from the pulpit of a Texas mega church, has a million Twitter followers, and his own channel on XM radio.  Yet a blot on his resume, a significant dent in his Christian credentials that no Bondo® (body putty) has been able to smooth over, was a serious, tell-tale gaff made in an interview in his early career.

When asked on a nationwide talk-show whether he was a ‘fire and brimstone’ kind of guy, this smiling preacher, who has no formal seminary training, said, “No. That's not me.  It’s never been me.  I’ve always been an encourager at heart.  …  I don’t have it in my heart to condemn people. I’m there to encourage them. I see myself more as a coach, as a motivator to help them experience the life God has for us.”
 
When asked whether people of other faiths who don’t believe in Christ would go to heaven, he replied, “You know, I’m very careful about saying who would and wouldn’t go to heaven. I don’t know.” He could have hit a homerun ball, but whiffed completely. Later, after receiving criticism from the evangelical community for his remarks, he issued a retraction of sorts, but this man has continued to reveal by his preaching (his ‘fruit’) that his take on the gospel is substantially different from the good news proclaimed by our Lord Jesus.   

Another high-profile pastor observed that many of those people who unacquainted with Jesus Christ are put off by the cross. It is too much of a negative stereotype. So his mega-church does not display the cross in its sanctuary and in his preaching he avoids emotionally-charged words such as damnation, wrath, hell, sin, blood, mercy, redemption, and salvation.

You might be familiar with the phrase ‘theology of glory’ – a more biblically accurate characterization the feel-good-about-yourself, aim for prosperity and self-fulfillment preaching commonplace in too many churches today. Attendees really don’t come to hear the Bible as such, but to hear how be personally successful, or better society or their relationships, because – they are told – that’s what Christians do and care about.

Might we be susceptible? Might false teachers be scratching our itching ears? We’ve been taught in confirmation class to know better, still we can fall victim to the lies of these wolves in sheep’s clothing. How?  By building our foundation on the shifting sand of teachings more aligned to this world. Clearly we are vulnerable, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have warned us against wolves in sheep’s clothing.

How can witness the truth to friends caught in the devil’s deceptions, if we are not sure of the truth? … if we’ve forgotten them, because the last time we really studied the Bible in depth was years ago?  If we do not taken the time to sink our spiritual roots deep into the rich soil of God’s Word, our faith is going to grow shallow and be weak and open to the bad fruit the devil is peddling through wrong theology and counterfeit christs.

So, what are we to do? Open up our Bibles.  ead the Word penned by the hands of men as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Hear the heavenly Father speak to you through the voices of his prophets and apostles. Listen to every word of Christ and put them into practice. Then you are like a wise man who built his house on a rock.

When someone claims that to preach the Bible, but will not condemn unbelievers for their unbelief, read this passage to him, the words of  Jesus: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” For those who are proposing a cross-less Christianity, open your Bible and read 2 Corinthians 1:23: “We preach Christ crucified.” Or for those who shy away from a life of difficulty, poverty, and persecution for Christians, tell them that Jesus was serious when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 

Jesus’ words are the Rock upon which our salvation is built. Every one of them is important and every one is valuable. All of them together declare God’s truth and refute the lies of false prophets.

Christ’s work and his words make our life strong and secure. The beams of our house are made out of the mighty cross of Christ.  His blood marks the posts of our door. The same nails that pierced him have built you up. The house of our faith then becomes eternal and immovable, because the Holy Spirit has been the contractor who’s built our faith and life on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the rock of our salvation. With our faith built on Christ’s words and works, no tidal wave of false teachings will ever move us.  We rest safe and secure in the truths of Scripture.

When wolves try deceiving us by dressing up in sheep’s clothing, follow ever more closely the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Jesus is the Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. He is also the perfect Passover Lamb, who shed his blood for his wayward lambs and sheep. He washes us clean in his baptismal waters. He feeds us with his own body and blood. He dresses us in the holy Lamb’s clothing.
 
Sadly, there are many who have accepted counterfeit cash. Sadder still, there are many more who’ve accepted counterfeit christs peddled by false prophets. To avoid being hookwinked, remember there’s only one Scripture that points unerringly to the one Savior. Be amazed at his teaching. For he teaches as one who has authority – the authority of the Son of God, your Savior, the Rock upon which your faith is built.  In a world of counterfeit christs, he is the only real thing.

Amen.