Recent Message

Isaiah 5:1-7  “THE SONG OF THE VINEYARD”
Pentecost 20 – October 18, 2020


     Everybody can relate to a sad love song —   because we’ve all loved and lost. From a little boy crying over a lost toy to a high school graduate mourning the passing of his childhood, from a jilted girlfriend to a disappointed wife, to a grieving widow —   when we love someone or something, we want that love to come back to us and we want it to last. Yet, somewhere along the line, we’ve all been disappointed. 

   So when a songwriter with a broken heart puts his or her feelings into verse and his or her emotions into music, everyone knows what that person is singing about. And that’s what we have in Isaiah chapter 5.

   Isaiah sings a song about the Lord’s great love for his people. God has showered his people, his Chosen Nation, the people of Israel with blessings and devotion, and he has great expectations for a glorious future together with them. But they have turned on him. It almost sounds as if God has a broken heart. Yet listen closely to this song and it becomes apparent that the Lord is not lonely or having hard time coping. He is not sad for himself. He is sad for his people.

1. Our sin makes us worthless vines.

  Isaiah’s song is about a vineyard. “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard.”  A man scouts out the perfect plot of ground for his vineyard. He plants it on a rich, fertile, sun-drenched hillside. He digs up the land. He clears it of stones. In Israel there were typically enough stones to create a wall around a vineyard. This is back-breaking, labor-of-love work. The man has a vision of what is vineyard is going to look like … how bountiful the grapes will be that his vineyard is going to produce.

  He selects a choice vine, a variety that’s going to yield those delicious grapes in abundance. So certain is he of growing good fruit, he builds a watchtower before even harvesting his first crop. He is sure wandering animals and sneaking thieves will be coming after his grapes. He also hollows out a place in a rock, turning it into a winepress. Then he waits. He waits patiently with every right to expect a bumper crop. But after all that effort, after that investment in time and attention to detail, the vines produces rotten, yucky, worthless grapes.  

  The word-picture in Isaiah’s song is an analogy ...“The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.” The Lord set the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel, apart from all the rest of the world. He freed them from slavery. He miraculously provided food and water for them in the wilderness. He settled them in their own land. He provided kings for them. He gave them priests to lead them in worship. He sent prophets to keep them close to him through his Word. He promised them the Savior who would take away their sins. But after all that - what kind of fruit does the Lord see?? Nothing in which he can take satisfaction. You can appreciate Isaiah’s poetry a bit better in the original Hebrew. God looked for “justice” … sounds like miš·pa? ( ?????????? ), but he saw only “bloodshed” mi?·p?? ( ?????????? ). There’s that kind contrast running throughout; it’s one huge disappointment!

   Seven centuries later Jesus tells essentially the same story in narrative form, in today’s Parable of the Tenants. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
 
   Jesus’ parable is nearly identical. It’s a story about how God’s chosen people ignored and mistreated his prophets, gave themselves over to idolatry (false gods), and eventually killed God’s own Son.

   This sad love song started at the Fall into Sin and it will play on until the day this world comes to an end. It’s easy to see the connection to you and me today ... we are the Lord’s vineyard. Think of everything he's given us ... family and friends, food and shelter, spiritual teachers to leads us into his Word, an array of gifts and talents to use in his service. Chief of all that he's given us, God has sent his Son Jesus to rescue us from the sin that would’ve separated us from him forever. 

   Yet, in spite of all this, the fruit of our rotten sinful nature, our Old Adam, continues to grow. Our gratitude and thankfulness for his gifts lasts a few moments and is quickly replaced with discontent and complaint. We use our gifts and talents to serve wonderfully, but then we stop or we bury our gifts, and we complain that others aren’t pulling their weight. Sometimes when we serve, we don’t do it in Jesus’ name, but in our own name”– that’s thinking it might garner us some well-deserved recognition for once. We pass up our opportunities to praise God and seek praise for ourselves.

  If this all sounds unreasonable or otherwise “off,” listen to what God says: “judge for yourselves.” Look at the record of God’s grace. Is there anymore he could do for lost sinners such as you and me than what he has done? Consider the sad record of our sins – our sins of thought, word, and deed; our sins of omission and commission that have not stopped. Shouldn’t God cast us aside for how brazenly we have tested his patience, spurning his love? Maybe we salve our consciences by telling ourselves ‘God understands.’ Doesn’t the Bible say somewhere that “he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust”? Surely he’ll cut us some slack! Right? He won’t come down on us with that heavy hammer of his law, will he? Watch out, my friends, that’s that rotten fruit. Not a single one of our sins holds up under any sort of excuse. We are fools if we think so —  and fools for being so ready to throw away God’s blessings in exchange for our miserable excuses!
Isaiah’s sad song is followed with this ominous warning from the Lord. “I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:  I will take away its hedge … I will break down its wall …  I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” Do you know that all of that happened in Isaiah’s time exactly as prophesied here? First the Assyrian Empire wiped the Northern Kingdom of Israel off the map in 722 BC. You’ve heard of the lost tribes of Israel? That was them – obliterated under God’s just justice. A century and a half later, the next world power to the stage, Babylon, overran the Southern Kingdom of Judah and carried off the brightest and best of her people, the cream of Jewish society, as exiles to Babylon. Jerusalem’s city walls were thrown down. Solomon’s glorious temple was plundered – stripped of its treasures – and basically bulldozed. For the next seventy years what was God’s garden of delight was a briar patch.

   Our Lord’s warning isn’t confined to that time. His warning finds its most direct application in the desolation that become post-apocalyptic Jerusalem, its shell-shocked residents (the few who were left) walking around like zombies. But God’s warning still stands. It’s meant for all who dare to forsake his love and turn away from him. John the Baptist echoed that warning, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews did too. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”

   
Of all the sad love songs none is sadder than this one. Yet, take heart, friends! The song does not end sadly!

2. Our Savior is the one, true Vine.

  Listen closely to Jesus in our Gospel. Yes, God’s ancient people rejected the Son, the Messiah to whom all of the prophecies and promises of God pointed. Yet Jesus quotes Psalm 118 and he says, “The one the builders rejected has become the capstone. The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

   
Think of it! God used the rejection that so roused his ire against sin and caused him to hate sin —  and he made it part of his plan to rescue the world. The rejected one becomes the perfect Sacrifice for sin. Can you imagine that!? It is as incomprehensible as that landowner in Jesus’s Parable of the Tenants saying, “You know, those ungrateful renters shamefully mistreated my servants and even killed them, I think I’ll send my son, because they’ve got to respect him, right?” That’s ludicrous. That makes no sense. That’s crazy. But that’s what the Lord did because he was so crazy in love with us sinners that he just had to win us back for himself. So he sacrificed his one and only Son for us. The rejected one, Jesus, turns this sad song to a song of joy.

   If anyone had the right to sing an aching song of disappointment it was Jesus. From the cross we should be hearing the most heart-wrenching song of love lost ever sung from the Son of God being crucified by the creatures he came to help. But that’s not what we hear. Instead he prays, “Father, forgive them!” To the penitent thief he declares, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Lastly he cries out, “It is finished.” Three days later, our innocent substitute rose from the dead. Jesus defeated death. And he did it for all people. How can anyone possibly sing a sad song after such a triumphant, world-shaking victory? Paul picks up the melody of this song in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Death, where is your sting?  Grave, where is your victory?”

   
October is the month of spooky graveyards, but we don’t have to whistle to calm our nerves when walking through the graveyard. We don’t have to let grief rule our lives and rob us of the joy God has in store for us, even in this world of sin and death. We can sing with a smile on our face and joy in our heart: “What comfort this sweet sentence gives: I know that my Redeemer lives!”  Not the devil, nor death, nor hell can silence our Savior’s song of victory. “Because I live,” says Jesus, “you also will live.”

   Jesus makes all the difference. He is the perfect Vine we could never be because of our sin. On the night before his death he told his friends around the Passover table:  “I am the vine, you are the branches; if you remain in me, you will bear much fruit.”

   
Jesus is the difference between rotten fruit and beautiful fruit. Apart from him we can do nothing. Even the things that look wonderful and draw the praise and admiration of the world around us are still rotten on the inside apart from Jesus. We need his forgiveness, his righteousness, his love. The whole world can call you a saint, but as long as sin is on your record, you still stink to high heaven. But in Jesus, you really are a saint, and through faith in him, the Spirit grows fruit in you that is beautiful, fruit that lasts: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. The world around you might not see this fruit at all; you might not see it in its full beauty either. You might see only half efforts at this kind of fruit. But the Lord sees beautiful, perfect fruit.  He sees the fruit he was longing for when he planted you.
 
   There is an old joke that says that when you sing a sad Country-Western love song backwards you get back everything you lost:  the girl who dumped you, your pickup that rusted out, your dog that ran away. If only Isaiah’s sad song was that easy to fix … sing it backwards! But it took the death and resurrection of God’s Son in the flesh to restore what we lost. Yet, Jesus has come and has put a new song in our hearts and on our lips, the song of his forgiveness, and we don’t have to wait until heaven to start singing it. 

   Your song is in your service to others – service freely given with a smile only your Savior could’ve put on your face and in your heart. Your song is in your patience in times of trouble and suffering, patience only the faithful love of your Savior could’ve given you. As vines, none of us could ever have borne the fruit our Creator desires, because we are sinners. Jesus turns the sad song of Isaiah into a song of joy for time and eternity. He is the Vine; we are the branches; in him we will bear much fruit.

  Amen.   

 



Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32  “LORD, GIVE ME A NEW HEART!
Pentecost 19 - October 11, 2020

  "Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone declares the Lord. Repent and live!"

  With it beating an average of 100,000 times a day ( that's whopping 35 million times year!) it’s surprising that the heart doesn’t give out more often than it does. Have you ever heard of a car engine that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 70 years without the need of a tune-up? Still, there are times when the human heart goes bad – from lack of exercise, failure to eat right, or bad genetics. In some cases the heart may be so damaged that a new one is needed.

  How’s your heart feeling this morning? Is it beating with strong regular intervals, delivering an adequate supply of oxygen throughout your body? Even if you haven’t had so much as a heart flutter, God tells us today that we all need a new heart. Of course he’s not talking about the organ beating in our chests; he’s talking about an attitude. God wants us each to have a heart – an attitude – that recognizes its own sinfulness and treasures God’s forgiveness. If we don’t have such a heart we’re to get one because it’s a matter of eternal life or death.

  So today, we travel not to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester or up to the University of Minnesota in the Cities, both places with impressive records of successful heart transplants, but we stay right here at Emmanuel Hospital. You’re being rolled on a gurney into surgery. If you really want to continue living, it’s time for a heart transplant! 

  The backdrop for our account is Jerusalem around 594 BC, five years before Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to the city, ultimately destroying it three years later and leveling the great Temple of Solomon. Ezekiel was not an eyewitness those events, but he reported them in advance of their happening, report them remotely – we would say today – because he’d been carried off in the initial wave of people deported to Babylon. You see, Ezekiel had the unenviable task of telling the Jews already there in exile and those still in Jerusalem that they had by no means see the worst of God’s judgment. The fury of Babylon is going to be unleashed as punishment for their sins against God. The temple will be looted and destroyed, the city walls torn down and Jerusalem left exposed and defenseless. Its remaining residents will be uprooted and marched off to Babylon as captives.

  This news is met with resistance. Why? The people aren’t willing to admit that their sins have brought this judgment upon them. Instead of repenting, they explain their predicament by quoting a proverb: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” What they are claiming, essentially, is:  ‘We are being treated unfairly! We're being made to suffer for other people’s failures.  It’s not our fault —   not our responsibility. They were the guilty ones; we are innocent.’

  Now, it’s true that their forefathers – the previous generation – had been guilty of turning away from the Lord. Forty years earlier King Manasseh had led the people to commit more serious sins than the Canaanites before them. Manasseh not only sacrificed his own children to idols, he defiled the Lord’s temple by setting up pagan images in it and putting God’s prophets to death. Tradition says that he even ordered Isaiah sawn in two! By contrast, hadn’t they – the people of Ezekiel’s day – returned to the Lord under good King Josiah? Hadn’t they started celebrating the Passover again and begun bringing their sacrifices again? How could Ezekiel claim it was their sins and not their fathers’ that was responsible for this calamity?

  Yes, Josiah had brought about a reformation in the land, ordering the removal of the idols installed by his grandfather Manasseh but, sadly, this was a superficial reform – not everyone approved of Josiah’s actions or went along them. While the people of Ezekiel’s day may not have been sacrificing their children to the idol Molech, they were guilty of bringing sacrifices to God out of a sense of duty, not love and thankfulness. And their weekday lives didn’t match their weekend worship. They cheated on their spouses. They harbored grudges against their neighbors. They lied to get things done. No, the people of Ezekiel’s day weren’t without guilt. And the worst part of it was they didn’t recognize it. Instead of owning what they’d done, they blamed others for the disaster they had brought upon themselves.

  Pastor, my son was bullied growing up. He dropped out of school and has drifted ever since. That’s why he has the problem with alcohol that he does. He can’t cope. -- Wait a minute. You're telling me son drinks to get drunk and forget; he has a choice, right? He chooses to drink. That’s wrong. The Bible says drunkness is a sin. He is obviously hurting himself by his behavior and I can see that hurts you too.

   Pastor, I’m suffering from discontentment in my life. I have these physical disabilities where I can’t do what I used to be able to do. I have a right to complain to God, don't I? -- Grumble, really? You know when the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness, God took issue with them for their bad attitude. The Apostle Paul had lots of struggles, but he still wrote: “I’ve learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. … I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” As Christians we accept our circumstances from God, trusting that he knows best. We lean on him and ask him to use our present situation – no matter how challenging – to glorify him.

  Pastor, I get so frustrated! It seems everything I try to plan —  my hopes and dreams —   just never materialize. I’ve begun to ask, ‘Why even try?’ Throwing in the towel on God isn’t a good play. That level of frustration is a sin. What happens today is part of God’s plan for your life today. Trust him to make sense of it.

  Do you recognize the thread running through these three examples? We easily fall into a blame-shifting, guilt-denying mindset because of that spiritual problem with which we're all afflicted ... our sin-diseased hearts. We human beings are good at offering up excuses and avoiding personal responsibility. It's like the patient confined to her hospital bed during her stay in the hospital. She accidentally spilled a cup of water on the floor. Not wanting anyone to slip and fall, she buzzed a nurse to have it mopped up. A nurses’ aide came it, took a look at it and explained that hospital policy only allowed her to clean up minor spills, housekeeping managed everything else. She paged housekeeping, but when housekeeping came up, he told the nurses' aide it was too small. They argued for a while till the patient couldn't take it anymore. She dumped the rest of her pitcher of water on the floor and said, "There! Is that a big enough puddle for the two of you to decide who's going to clean it up?"
 

 In any and every circumstance I can convince myself that it’s not my fault. “Yeah, I hit him, but he hit me first!” “Yeah, I yelled at her, but she started it!” "Yeah, I did it, but everyone else is doing it too!” 

  The Lord got to the heart of this issue when he said, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.”  My father may have been abusive and intolerant, … my mother may have been overbearing or permissive, … my pastors may have been lacking and my teachers may have been inadequate, … my boss may have been too demanding, … my coach may have been a jerk, … my friend may have betrayed me, … my neighbor may have been unkind. But no matter what excuse I shake out of my sleeve and no matter how true it may be ... “The soul who sins is the one who will die.”  It’s my fault. I can’t blame you or anyone else for my sin. It’s my fault. I must bear the consequence. 

 
  
So we have to ask ourselves forthrightly, honestly, “Have I sinned? Have I ever done what God has told me not to do?  Have I ever failed to do what God asks of me? Have I ever used my hands to touch what is unclean, used my words to say what is hurtful and mean, used my eyes and ears to be entertained by filth, used my thoughts to plan out deeds of darkness? If I could edit the movie that is my life, how much would I want to leave on the cutting room floor, embarrassed to let God see the most salacious parts?”

  Once you get past the excuse of blaming someone else as these Jews of old did and you honestly consider your thoughts, words and actions, it’s impossible not to feel guilty. But guilt, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  In fact, it serves a godly purpose. It tells us that something is wrong. It moves us to seek help. I liked how one Christian put it: “The purpose of being guilty is to bring us to Jesus.  Once we are there, its purpose is finished.”

  From there … that point onward, God wants you to see Jesus. God wants you to see his Son, Jesus, as your Savior from sin, guilt and death. This path of being lead into guilt and shame and then back out again is what the Bible calls repentance and we hear it used by the Lord himself in the passage before us:  “Why will you die, O house of Israel? … Repent and live!” Its essential meaning is “to turn” – to do a 180o. Often we have a negative image of repentance in our minds, picturing ourselves battered and beaten down. But repentance is what God uses to take that sour taste of sin out of our lives (like the sour grape pucker the exiles complained about) and God replaces that with the sweet taste of our Savior’s love for us. 

  Getting back to image we’re making use of today. So … we need a new heart, a heart that recognizes our own sinfulness. The Lord told his people of old through Ezekiel: “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.God wants us to have a new heart because he wants us to live. So concerned is he about of our immortal souls’ eternal welfare he not only tells us to get a new heart, he also gives us that new heart. Through this same prophet God promises to do this for the penitent, those repenting, those broken by their guilt and shame and seeking rescue from God: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Eze 11:19).

  How does God give us this new heart? Surprisingly, it’s a lot like the way you would receive a new heart if you checked into an actual hospital for a heart transplant. Before you can receive a new heart someone has to die. Not only that, the person who has died, whose heart is now available to be transplanted, has to have been willing to donate his or her heart before you can receive it, and that heart has to be a match or your body will reject it. Do you see similarities with Jesus? Jesus gives us this new heart. He has done that by dying on a cross for the sins of our old heart. Like an organ donor, Jesus was willing to do this. Actually, he was even more willing than an organ donor. An organ donor will only give you his heart once he’s done with it, not a moment before. Jesus surrendered his life so we could receive this new heart.

  But how do we know that this new heart which Jesus has given us is a match? How do we know that it’s gonna to work for us and beat now in our chest? We know it will work because Jesus declared that he has come to redeemed all people, to die for the sins of the whole world, promising “whoever believes in him shall not perish but [has] eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Jesus’ new heart is a ‘universal fit,’ an exact match!

  So now what? How do you treat this new heart that’s yours through faith in Jesus? Well, how does a heart transplant recipient care for their new heart? First, they won’t treat that new heart like the old one. They won’t keep on eating tons fatty foods:  mounding ice cream into a bowl for a midnight snack and French fries every day for lunch and so risk that new heart getting clogged like the old one. They will value their new lease on life. Similarly, we’ll treasure the new heart we have received and care for it —  and we will show that value that gift of forgiveness God has given us by avoiding sin. While we’ll still fall into sin, we dare not willingly live in it.

  In the aftermath of that sorry chapter in David’s life – his committing adultery with Bathsheba and his being complicit in the death of her husband Uriah, King David prayed: "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence     or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."  It was a prayer the Lord heard and answered. Read the rest of the account of David’s life in Scripture and you’ll see there was no Bathsheba #2, or Bathsheba #3, or 4 or 5. God’s forgiveness in the promised Savior profoundly changed in his life going forward. He had a new heart, a restored heart, a heart that was like God’s own heart.
 
  Whether you realize it or not before today you are a heart transplant recipient. Christ died for your sins and gave you his pure heart. Treasure the fact that Jesus came to your rescue in this way, dear friends! Don’t take the evasion route (which is a dead-end – literally), but confess your sins, trusting that God has forgiven them all in Christ. Then take care of that new heart you’ve received, for without it you would remain under the Lord’s judgment. Take care of this new heart because it’s given you much more than a new lease on life. It guarantees you eternal life!

  Amen.

 



Ephesians 6:10-18  “SOLDIER OF GOD, BE STRONG IN THE LORD!
Confirmation Sunday, October 4, 2020


Dear fellow soldiers of the cross,
   and especially you confirmands,
 
   We are at war! War, really!? Yes, really!!  We are involved in a conflict both monumental and consequential! 

   No, I am not referring to humanity’s feverish attempts to halt the spread of the coronavirus. In terms of human history that battle which has upended so much of normal life is a blip. No, I am not thinking of the war of opposing ideologies playing out in the American political realm, liberals vs. conservatives. That brawl occupies center-stage right now and will only grow more intense as Election Day approaches. (It’s certainly not going to go away after that, but we can hope it will simmer down some.) It's true that we do have tens of thousands of troops stationed in a dozen different potential flashpoints around the globe, but I don't mean any of those 'struggles' either.

   The war I have in mind is the very personal war in which every believer is embroiled and which cannot be escaped. From the baptismal font ’til our deathbeds, we are engaged in a knock down, drag out, good vs. evil spiritual struggle. Our spiritual opponents, largely unseen, want to destroy our faith in Jesus. The simple trust in Christ planted in our hearts we were baptized and nurtured through years of Christian education, these enemies want to root out. Their assaults are so relentless Jesus asked: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” 

   We wish it was otherwise. We wish that we as God’s people could experience in full our Savior’s victory here in the present, but that’s going to have to wait. We belong not to the church triumphant (which awaits the Last Day), but to the church militant. So the battle is joined. We are soldiers and it’s important that we be in a position to defend ourselves and go on the offensive. Paul had that concern as he wrote to his friends in Ephesus. After three chapters of reviewing what Jesus has done to save us and three chapters of describing how we live out our Christ faith, he essentially calls them to arms. “Be strong in the Lord,” he says – a fitting encouragement on this, Confirmation Day. Let’s consider that appeal, “SOLDIER OF GOD, BE STRONG IN THE LORD!” and the specific encouragements Paul also gives:  1) Know your enemy. 2) Put on God’s armor. 3) Stand with your allies. 

1. Know your enemy

   The name Dean Winters isn’t widely recognizable, but he is the actor who plays “Mayhem” on those Allstate Insurance commercials. Winter’s character delights in causing misery and loss. That’s our chief adversary, but malevolent a million times over. In every day terms he’s a really bad dude. Knowing who your enemy is and how and where he’s going to attack is crucial to our readiness as soliders.

   Echoing a warning that Peter gives, “Your enemy ... prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,”  Paul says here, "… our struggle is not against flesh and blood [ordinary people], but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." In case you hadn’t guessed our chief enemy is Satan, literally “the Accuser.” He is the deceiver of humanity who took down Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and who is gunning for every believer. He’s cunning. He’s adept at using lies and half-truths to sow doubt and thus undermine a Christians trust in God. He has as a goal driving a wedge between you and God, peeling you as a sheep away from the flock of the Good Shepherd. Don’t underestimate the devil’s resolve to get you, because he means to do you serious harm! 

   Scripture documents well the devil’s treachery. I mentioned Adam and Eve, his original victims. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – all the heroes of faith throughout time – have had their faith put to the test by the Evil One. The gospels tell us how Satan was even so bold as to try to attack Jesus, pursuing him in the wilderness, challenging him through demon-possessed people and the compromised Jewish religious leaders during the course of his earthly ministry, finally unleashing on him that deep, deep anguish of soul Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Mount Calvary.

   We would be foolish to dismiss the devil as ‘no big deal,’ to make the tragic mistake many do – even many Christians – of thinking the devil as no more than some spiritual boogeyman. My next-door neighbor is one of those people who decks out his house for Halloween … the whole nine yards:  bedsheet ghosts hanging from trees, orange lights on the eaves, a ghoul flapping in the breeze from the corner of his house, and fake gravestones in the frontyard. It’s all make-believe, of course. On the other hand, Satan is real and a clear and present danger. The thing is ... the devil is more than halfway to winning the battle if he can convince you that he’s not real enemy. He will lay a snare for your soul, try to spring it on you, and in that way – even though you have been redeemed by Jesus and marked with a cross – capture you and take you to hell with him for eternity. 

  When you confirmands were growing up, out of concern for your safety your parents taught about ‘stranger-danger,’ people who to look out for because not everybody out there is nice. Regardless of how old we are, we can’t afford to be naïve or complacent about the threat posed by the Evil One and his lackeys:  the unbelieving world and our sinful natures. Know your enemy!

2.  Put on God's armor

   G.I. (short for ‘government issue’) became a popular term during WWII. It referred to the military equipment doled out to US servicemen and women. (By extension the initials came to stand for our soldiers themselves —   as in G.I. Joes.) Eighty years of advancements in military technology have changed things up. Soldiers head into combat today wearing desert pattern camouflage, Kevlar vests, hi-tech helmets, boots, and the standard issue M16A2 military assault rifle. This is their uniform.  

   As he writes to the Ephesians, Paul has been under house arrest, chained to a Roman soldier, for nearly three years. He obviously knows the parts of a Roman soldier’s armor and the Apostle uses it to come up with a quite comprehensive list of the armor with which we are outfitted. So after you slip off those spiffy white confirmation gowns, what should you be committed to reaching into your closet for and putting on each day as your G.I. – ‘God issue’ gear? ... your uniform? So important is it that you do this, Paul gives the encouragement twice! "Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes … put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand …".

   Paul mentions a belt: “Stand firm … with the belt of truth buckled around your waist…”. The belt worn by a Roman soldier was much wider than the belts we wear to hold up our trousers or jeans. Made of leather, it protected the vulnerable parts of the body – as an enemy sword swung at the midsection could drop you in an instant. It kept the rest armor in place and held the soldier’s sword in a scabbard. Paul equates this belt with the truth of God’s Word. You see, the objective truth of God’s grace in Christ, revealed in Holy Scripture —   that guards our ‘sensitive parts’ spiritually-speaking. The devil’s got us pegged; he knows where we are weak and that’s where he attacks. You and I, however, know the truth. We know how deceptive Satan’s lies are. We know that they are lies and that the devil never delivers on his promises. On the other hand, we know that what God has been made clear in his Word. Most of all, we know what God has done for us in Jesus. Reject Satan’s lies and cling to God’s truth and you’ll be safe!

   Paul mentions a breastplate, calling it … “the breastplate of righteousness,” This piece of armor would guard a soldier’s heart. The righteousness you have, which is not your own righteousness—, for that would be a breastplate of cardboard! —  but the righteousness of Jesus, given to you, that righteousness from God … which is yours by faith, apart from works —   that righteousness guards your heart. In Jesus’ righteousness you have peace with God, complete freedom from a guilty conscience. Your heart is safe.

   Paul continues, alluding to a soldier’s sandals: “Stand firm… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”  It’s hard to fight barefoot. A sharp rock could send you to the ground. You need to be ready to move on a moment’s notice, alert to dodge any impending attack. The agility to dodge the devil’s temptations come from the gospel of peace.
   
   “In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith,” Paul says, “with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” A Roman soldier didn’t carry a small round shield hung on the arm; his was a huge, rectangular shield, 4 feet tall by 2 ½ feet wide. When in battle formation, his entire body was protected. And when soldiers knew a battle was coming they would soak their shields in water overnight so the burning arrows of the enemy would go out when those flaming arrows struck the shield. The devil keeps launching accusations against us every day, volley after volley after volley of ‘flaming arrows.’ But your faith in Jesus and in what he’s done to take away your sin silences Satan’s accusations with a steaming hiss.

   A warrior didn’t hide his head behind his shield. He needed to look out over it in order to face his opponent. So the Apostle continued, “Take the helmet of salvation …”. On the Christian’s helmet is written “Salvation.” Knowing the salvation you have in Jesus helps you to hold up your head with confidence and joy. It guards your mind and helps you keep your head when you might otherwise lose your cool. 
   
   Now, how foolish it would be if a soldier was all decked out in this armor, but had no weapon. We have a weapon! “Take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” A sword can be used both for both defense and offense. Confirmation is kinda like getting your learners permit which allows you to get behind the wheel of a vehicle, but you’re still learning how to drive and you are relating the rules of the road learned in classroom instruction with ‘real life’ where there are cars and trucks and pedestrians everywhere. So, you’re not done yet with God’s Word. Continue to study it and hear it and read it for yourself. Above all yield the Word in the battle ahead of you.

   See how we are protected – head to toe – by this armor? Clad in this gear we will “be strong in the Lord.” In the original Greek those words: “be strong” are a passive imperative, which means we don’t do this ourselves. “Be strengthened” would be the more literal encouragement Paul gives. So, I am not tell you three, “Hey, it’s time for you guys to buck up and be stouthearted men!” as if you could produce this strength. I am saying, ‘Let God strengthen you.’ He has the power and his power is unlimited.

3.  Stand with your allies.

   Not only has God given you all the protection you need, he has also given you allies:  brothers and sisters in arms to fight alongside you. You can’t fight anyone’s battle for them and they can’t fight your battle for you, but you can help other people in their battle against the devil.

   Your Confirmation Day is a milestone that we all celebrate. It’s a time for us to be reminded that we’re not individual soldiers, dropped behind enemy lines, assigned to carrying out some covert operation, while hoping to evade the enemy. But we’re part of one, huge force – the Holy Christian Church – working together in the interest of Jesus’ kingdom, wanting to see the gospel touch and change the lives of many others. We support each other as we fight side-by-side for the cause of Christ.

   One aspect of our being there for each other, mentioned here by Paul, is praying for one another. “Keep on praying for all the saints.” Remember the people behind you as they are engaged in the same spiritual struggle; remember them in your prayers. They are doing the same for you, praying for you and asking God to keep you strong. God promises that our prayers are powerful and effective. We are allies in this battle.

   It’s a bitter battle, a long battle, which we face as the church militant. It’s not a battle, however, that is ours alone to wage. In fact, Jesus has defeated the devil. Know and rejoice in the fact that Jesus has won the war and that the final victory is awaiting us in heaven. With God on your side, by his grace and in his strength you will not lose. Each morning when you get out of bed, put on the armor of God. When you face trial and temptation, remember especially that sword of the Word by which you can defend yourself. Continue to access the help and strength that come from your Savior Jesus.  Pray and stand with your allies.


   “SOLDIER OF GOD, BE STRONG IN THE LORD!” 

   Amen. 
 


Genesis 50:15-21  “IN THE PLACE OF GOD”
Pentecost 17, September 27, 2020

"But Joseph said to them (his brothers), 'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? ..."

   It was an act of desperation on the part of Joseph’s brothers. Their father Jacob, also known as Israel, the patriarch of the family, was now dead. He had been the glue that held the family together. As so happens in many families, the children are on their best behavior out of respect for their aged parent. There is an uneasy truce in keeping the peace in what could otherwise be a very fragile and splintered relationship among one another. But once that honored family member is gone, there’s no telling what might happen. 

   Such was the situation among these children of Israel —   and they knew they could be in for it! They had been guilty of selling Joseph, their own brother, into slavery. They had been guilty of embittering their father’s life with the fabricated story that Joseph had been violently killed by a wild animal. They even took that famous ‘coat of many colors’ and dyed it red in the blood of a sacrificed goat to make the deception appear more believable. But then, to their shock and potential horror, they discovered that their brother not only was very much alive, but also had become a very powerful man in the land of Egypt —   so powerful that with a snap of his fingers they could all be executed for their crimes, and deservedly so. For what they had done was by most standards, unforgivable. 

  But Joseph was governed by another standard —   one which flowed out of faithfulness and love toward God. Joseph could easily have denounced God long before. From a simply human point of view, it certainly seemed at times as if God had deserted him. Think about what he’d been through ...

   In that dry cistern (the hole in the ground dug to collect rain water), Joseph could only pray, “God, send someone to rescue me.” The ‘someone’ turned out to be Reuben and Judah, who intervened. But their ‘common sense proposal’ made to the rest of the brothers was to sell Joseph to slave traders. How was that an answer to his prayer? “God, why are you allowing this to happen to me?” Joseph must’ve wondered as, bound, he was led along in that traders’ caravan to Egypt. Faithfully Joseph served the captain of the palace guard, the man who bought him—  served in the house of Potiphar, until he was falsely accused of sexual harassment. Imprisoned, he languished there for over two years, surely wondering, ‘What’s God doing now?!’. Then, in what he likely took as a ‘chance’ encounter, meeting two former palace workers and interpreting their dreams —   that ‘chance’ encounter brought him into presence of the Pharaoh himself whose dreams Joseph interpreted.

   Joseph maintained his trust in the Lord throughout those difficult times. And God raised him up to that position of prominence where he was responsible for the saving of countless lives during a severe famine. And although Joseph’s life was as nothing before, his jealous and vengeful brothers – their lives – were still precious to God and, in turn, precious to Joseph. 

   But it was after Jacob died that the brothers came to imagine Joseph may well have been biding his time to exact his vengeance against them. The brothers fear the worst. Desperate, they fabricated another story …
Your father left these instructions before he died:  ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph:  I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.

   On hearing their pleas, Joseph saw through their motivation and their fear. We are told, He wept.” He was so moved by the fact that his brothers could be that uncertain of their standing with him —   and that terrified, that they actually thought that he would now avenge their mistreatment of him —   that he broke down and cried tears of compassion.

   Joseph told his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” It’s amazing how Joseph responds! Even when we can be fairly certain that he knows his brothers are lying through their teeth and had concocted yet another story, nevertheless he still has compassion on them. He wants to set to rest their fears, and so “he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” 

  This scene could have played out much differently had Joseph been vindictive as his brothers feared. There is a saying: “Revenge is a dish best served up cold” … meaning vengeance is more satisfying if not exacted immediately, if you ruminate on how you are going to ‘settle the score.’ There’s such irony here! The brothers project onto Joseph the same character-flaw they displayed over and over. And it’s a pity that they do! How sad —   if they had lived under that dark, ominous cloud for seventeen years. You see, that was the length of time that elapsed from when Joseph first disclosed that he wasn’t a bad-tempered Egyptian bureaucrat but their long-lost brother (cf. Gen. 45:4-8a). Seventeen years! Could it have been that during almost two decades of living no real healing had taken place between the brothers and Joseph???

   In one sense, it’s hard to imagine. But in another sense, it’s completely plausible given what we know about the matter of extending forgiveness and accepting forgiveness. Although God over and over proclaims to us that he has completely forgiven us in Christ —   “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” the psalm writer says (Ps. 103:12) —   yet we have our nagging doubts. Has he really? “God can’t forgive me for what I’ve done!” But he has – in Christ – and God repeatedly assures us that we are forgiven.

   Joseph was sincere in the forgiveness he offered to his brothers. Possibly no other Old Testament figure bears more of a Christ-like resemblance. Joseph is … a) beloved by his father, b) betrayed by his brothers, c)   a victim of false witness. d) For all practical purposes he was given over to ‘death,’ but in that ‘death’ he ends up saving many lives. Then his brothers are amazed to see him raised back up from that certain grave, alive once more, ruling in power, and —   most of all, bestowing the gifts of forgiveness.

   There is so much to be learned in this account when it comes to the conflicts that we go through and the pains that we experience – especially at the hands of others. It’s our sinful, human nature to think that all is lost, … to imagine that God has abandoned us, … and to feel that those who have sinned against us so cruelly should suffer the worst of fates. But we are not in the place of God. We don’t have the wisdom to decide what path or experience is most beneficial to us when it comes to the molding of our spiritual lives. We are not in a position to decide when we have dealt with more than enough, or when our prayers are no longer purposeful. And, we certainly aren’t in the position of determining who should be punished and how for their wrongdoing —   even though we may attempt to do that very thing in our very limited way. 
Joseph’s brothers had ‘played God’ … put themselves in the place of God. They thought Joseph didn’t deserve to be part of their family. In their minds, he was to blame for the troubles he brought on himself. He had flaunted that dream-telling ability, sharing uninvited those dreams that made him look like a bigshot. We stand in the place of God, whenever we take matters into our hands and render those unjust judgements on others, while conveniently by-passing our own guilt.

   How did Joseph escape having a vengeful spirit? It was grace! Joseph – a sinner, just as we are – was brought by the Holy Spirit’s working to see that it was in no way right for him to bear a lifelong grudge against his brothers. He does the right thing —   speaking kindly to those who have trespassed against him, and comforting those who are troubled and, yes, are undeserving as well.

   The question that confronts each one of us today is: “Does God expect any less of me?”

   We hear Jesus’ own words in our Gospel. Essentially, Jesus says, “Don’t keep score. Forgive – a hundred of times over if need be. For, if you are stingy in forgiving others from the heart, how can you expect your Father in heaven to forgive you?” It isn’t that fear is our motivator. We don’t forgive to get forgiven. Rather, we forgive well aware of the insurmountable debt that Christ has already forgiven each one of us!

  Thankfully, we are not in God’s place – Jesus Christ is! He stands between us and the Almighty like a whipping boy, absorbing the punishing blows that were meant for us. He is like that sacrificial goat that was slaughtered by Joseph’s brothers, who innocently died to cover up their guilty deception. Jesus is, indeed, the Lamb of God who suffers for the straying sheep. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. And with his stripes, we are healed.

   The Lord speaks to us kindly and tenderly saying that, though our sins against him and against others meant the evil of his bitter suffering and death, God meant it for good, for the saving of our lives. “I will provide for you,” he says. “I will provide you with the very same body and blood that I gave to atone for all  your sins, so that you can always have that complete and total assurance that this sacrifice has been given and shed For you.”
 
   You never have to fear, my friends. You never have to worry what is going to become of you or what will be your eternal outcome. You don’t have to scheme or lie your way out of the guilt of your sins —   not when God himself gives you his own Word that the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses you from all sin.
What a comfort to receive that pardon! What a blessing to be able to share that same peace with others! What a joy to have an eternal heavenly Father who’ll always be there to hold his family together by his grace! 

   Amen.



Ezekiel 33:7-11  “FULFILL YOUR ROLE AS GOD'S WATCHMAN”
Pentecost 16, September 20, 2020


   Daniel Webster – statesman, lawyer, and orator – once said, "The most important thought I ever had was my individual responsibility to God." But what is every human being’s individual responsibility toward God? God demands from us what we can never give him:  perfection. Thankfully, Jesus took our sins upon himself and gave us in exchange his perfection, so that by grace alone – without absolutely any merit or worthiness on our part – we meet God’s requirements. Now, out of thankfulness, we strive to do all that God asks of us.
   
   Today we focus on one of the responsibilities God places before us, an opportunity we are given to express to him our gratitude. God has given us, his redeemed children, the responsibility of warning others of his impending judgment. God has made us not only his children, but his watchmen. First, we are to listen to what the Lord says. Then we are to warn others of the coming judgment about which God has told us. Finally, we are to reassure those who repent of their sins and comfort them with gospel of Christ.

1. Listen to the Lord

   God told Ezekiel that he had made him a watchman. But what exactly does that mean? In our day of satellite imagery and wireless communications, watchmen use different tools, but their function remains the same. They watch for enemies, for disasters, for anything that brings death and destruction. Then they alert everyone who is in the path of danger. They sound the alarm to warn people of impending disaster and give them adequate time to avert the disaster.

   In biblical times the watchman’s job was to sit in a tower and keep a constant vigil, perpetually scanning the horizon on the lookout for any enemy who might come near. These watchmen had to be awake and alert whenever they were on duty. Ezekiel’s responsibilities as a watchman were a bit different. His job wasn’t to keep his eyes open to watch for the enemy, but to keep his ears open to hear God’s Word. The Lord said, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.”

   Ezekiel’s job was to listen intently for any message God would reveal to him, to listen attentively to God’s Word of warning. While the people of Ezekiel’s day thought the enemy was their Babylonian captors, God revealed that their real enemy was their own sin. All humanity is born so steeped in sin that no one is even aware of the problem. No one would know their greatest problem was sin, unless God first revealed that truth. It is in his Word that God reveals what man’s individual responsibility toward God is – absolute perfection. 
“Be holy,” he says, “because I, the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). And no one would know what the consequences are for failing to be perfect, unless God revealed that as well —   “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  In the passage before us God makes the statement: “O wicked man, you will surely die!” (v. 8). Since all of these things can only be known clearly by God revealing them to us, how important is to listen attentively!

   No one listened to God’s word more attentively than Jesus. He always listened to his Father’s Word perfectly. Even when he was just a boy, he knew the Scriptures perfectly. When he was twelve years old his parents “found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk. 2:46-47). When he was fully grown, he said, “All things have been committed to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:27). Jesus listened perfectly.

   And thank God that he did, for Jesus’ perfect listening is now credited to us. Our sins of so often tuning God out, the negligent attitude toward his Word which we have at times displayed … reaching for the remote instead of a devotional book, knowing more about the stats of players on our favorite ball team while remaining largely in the dark on Holy Scripture —  all of that is covered by the blood of Christ with the result that our attitude toward hearing the Word is altered. We count it a privilege to be in God’s house, where the Lord is pleased to meet us. We have open ears to hear and open hearts as well to put into practice what we learn as our God speaks to us. We accept that we have a role as watchmen, not keeping a constant vigil scanning the horizon, but keeping a constant vigil scanning Scripture. To us, as well, the Lord says, “I have made you a watchman … so hear the word I speak.” It’s a job we take seriously.

   When we hear that Word, we first apply it to ourselves, but then we carry out the responsibility we’ve been given of sharing it with others. “Hear the word I speak and give them warning from me …”, the Lord says.

2. Warn the wicked

   Scanning the horizon for an approaching enemy was not a watchman’s only job. In fact, if all he did was watch for the enemy what good would he be?! He had to watch and give warning when he saw danger coming. If he simply said to himself, “Whoa, looks like a battle brewing …” but did nothing to warn the people, he would be relatively worthless. If a meteorologist watching a tsunami in the Pacific saw it heading toward Hawaii, but never mentioned it … never alerted the authorities to get the word out to people so they could prepare, that forecaster would be responsible for the death of the victims by withholding that information.

   The same was true with Ezekiel. If he didn’t warn people of the impending disaster when he heard that God would destroy the wicked for their sin, he would be responsible for the eternal death of any victims lost to hell. The Lord said, “When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.”

   
Ezekiel had to warn the people of their sinful rebellion against God. He had to warn them of their wickedness and injustice, … of their complacency and backsliding, … God’s impending judgment against their sin because those who know the truth are responsible to share it.

   Again, no one shared the truth better than Jesus. There’s a Greek proverb says, “The feet of the avenging deities are shod with wool,” meaning they sneak up on you. That’s not how it is with the true God. There’s no sneaking up on the wicked in silence surprising them in his wrath. No! In love the true God warns his people over and over. Jesus, too, sounded the warning trumpet loudly and clearly. Remember these words?
Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths (a reference to hell). If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.  But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (Matt. 11:21-24). Repeatedly Jesus warned, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” He sounded the warning cry clearly, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). He warned the wicked perfectly.

   Jesus continues to sound the warning cry today through you and me. Yes, through Christian pastors, parents and friends he warns us about attitudes and behaviors that run counter to God’s will. By the witness of these Jesus says to the person led astray, “In your deliberately sinning, you risk rejecting me and the rescue I gained for you. Continue on a path of sinning, and you’ll be condemned to that hell from which I came to save you.” 

   Since God sounds the warning cry through us today, it’s our responsibility to proclaim the stark truth of an impending hell. Our job, as recipients of the truth, is to share that truth and sound the alarm. If my neighbor’s house is on fire while he’s sleeping and I see yet, but do nothing to warn him, I’m responsible for his death.

   Martin Luther wrote, “Since this is my duty, I will point out sins to peasants, burghers, and noblemen, and rebuke them for these without paying attention to their complaints when they say, ‘Look here, you are defaming me!’ For if I held back I would make myself guilty of your sin. And why should I go to hell for you?” (LW 22:372). Luther clearly had in mind what God was telling Ezekiel: “… if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.”

   In the days ahead of the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington State (July 10, 2008), when seismographs alerted those watching the volcano of its unstable condition, officials did all they could to clear the mountain. But one man foolishly insisted that he’d lived on the mountain his entire life and knew it better than all those fancy machines. He refused to evacuate and when the intense heat and lava hit his cabin, he became the only casualty of the eruption, buried beneath tons of rock and ash.

   It’s our job to preach the law and warn people of the hell that awaits them. While it’s not our fault if they refuse to listen, it is our fault if we keep silent. So boldly we preach God’s law. We warn. We plead. We do all that we can to lead people to repentance, because there’s a greater, an absolutely awesome message we have to share with them as well – the gospel of Christ.

3. Reassure the penitent

   The watchman’s job wasn’t simply to sight the enemy and sound the warning to frighten people, so they would cry out, “We’re all doomed! There’s nothing we can do!” The watchman sounded his warning so people living outside the city could quickly move within the city’s fortified walls. The warning was sounded to save people.

   God’s warning, issued through Ezekiel, was the same. God’s intent was to save the people from their sins. And the warning worked! It led many to recognize their sins. The people finally stopped blaming others for their sins. Before, they’d blamed their fathers for the punishment they endured as exiles of Babylon. They’d even blamed God for their situation, calling him unjust. But now, they finally recognized that they had rebelled against God in their sin. They called it what it was, “our offenses … our sins.” They thought, “There’s no way we can avert this doom, so what’s the use?”

   With the law having done its work, they were ready for the gospel. This is what God told Ezekiel …
"Son of man, say to the house of Israel, “This is what you are saying: ‘Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”

   
Though the people began to despair thinking, “God likes to punish us, so what’s the use of repenting?” Ezekiel gave them the encouragement they needed. “God doesn’t take pleasure in your deaths. He’s not a mean little kid with a magnifying glass on the anthill. He doesn’t enjoy the thought of sending any of you to hell. But when you reject his forgiveness in the Messiah, the coming Savior, you choose hell.” In grace God sent Ezekiel to remind them of their sin and in grace God sent Ezekiel to remind them of his mercy.
   
 
God doesn’t ever change. He is "the same yesterday, and today, and forever"  (Hebrews 13:8). So the description of him in Ezekiel 33 gives us a very clear description of God’s attitude toward sinners today. He is loving and merciful and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

  It’s not a happy thought to God that thousands die every day only to be lost to an eternity of hell. If anyone thinks differently, they need only look to the cross to see how much the death of the wicked upsets God. It pains God so much to see people lost forever that he sent his Son to experience hell in their place. He sent his Son to become a lowly human, to suffer and die, and then fall headlong into that spiritual black hole that is complete and utter God-forsakenness – hell – all to make the wicked righteous.

  Jesus Christ took away every sin by his cross, forgiving us for every time we failed to listen to the Word with an attentive ear, forgiving us for every time we failed to warn an erring brother or sister because we were too lazy, too timid, or too concerned about losing a friend. At the cross Jesus made us who once were wicked God’s perfect saints.

  Now, when the warning is sounded – whether it comes from a Christian parent or friend, through a pastor’s sermon or by way of a devotional message held in your hands such as Meditations, or one that popped up in your email, be thankful whenever it strikes a responsive chord in your heart. Listen to what God says and, abandoning what needs to be left behind, turn from the evil to trust in Christ’s forgiveness. Then, in thanksgiving, share with others both the warning cry of God and his message of hope and life in Christ.
FULFILL YOUR ROLE AS GOD'S WATCHMAN.

  Amen.

 



Judges 16:22-31 “RESTORED BY GRACE”
Pentecost 15 – September 13, 2020

   As a youngster growing up near Milwaukee in the 1960s, I recall a yearly family outing we kids thoroughly enjoyed:  the day, typically in summer, when our parents took us to the Milwaukee County Zoo. We raced from one exhibit to another, awed by the ‘real, live animals’ we otherwise only ever saw in books:  elephants, hippos, zebras, and giraffes from Africa; camels, antelopes, water buffalo, and smaller-eared Indian elephants from Asia. There were the big cats:  lions and tigers, housed in exhibits approximating their natural habitat. We wandered through the aviary, filled with squawking and chirping birds, and exited through the chilly penguin exhibit. We got somewhat creeped out in the reptile and small mammal house, where snakes slithered and hanging bats slept and other creatures of the night stirred.

   In the primate house, though, resided the zoo’s star attraction, a 652 lb. lowland silverback gorilla, named Samson. Samson was known for his antics of banging on the inches thick security windows of his enclosure to get visitors’ attention. His size and demeanor conveyed the message, ‘I’m nobody you mess with.’ He was well cared for and loved at the zoo where he lived for 30 years, sponsored Pabst Brewing Co. In the mid-2000s the Milwaukee Public Museum added to it collection a striking recreation, a model of this famous Milwaukee icon to preserve his memory.

   I mention the Samson of my youth, because of the Samson of our First Lesson. This Israelite was the eleventh and last ‘judge’ – champion, hero – to lead God’s people prior to the time of the kings. He was the closest our world has ever known to a real super-man. The Lord blessed Samson with extraordinary strength. But it was a gift largely abused by the man whose arrogance and pig-headedness were as big as his muscles.

   Our readings today center on the question what does it mean to be a disciple? For the sake of brevity we could say a disciple is a believer in Jesus, someone washed clean in the blood of God’s Son. A disciple is someone who listens to Jesus, listens to his Word so that the Holy Spirit might create and sustain and strengthen his faith. A disciple also follows Jesus, as heard in our Gospel Lesson. If you want to follow Jesus, you must take up your cross and let him lead the way on whatever path no matter how difficult it might become. A disciple finally serves Jesus with the spiritual gifts he’s been given. If those are the three hallmarks of a disciple – listening, following, serving God, Samson seldom did any of them.

   Four chapters in Judges are devoted to telling his life’s story. His exploits could carry the caveat:  “for mature audiences only.” The biblical account is points graphic and unsettling. There are two ‘bright spots’ we can cheer.

 
 Early on we ready how a childless couple from the tribe of Dan, Manoah and wife, learn from the Lord they are going to have a baby, an exceptional child. He would be a Nazirite - a person devoted to God, as shown by his never allowing a razor to touch his head or a drop of wine to touch his life. Judges 13: fills us with such hope! "The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him ... .But from there everything unravels so quickly!

   The depth of Samson’s degradation reaches such lows we might wonder why would the Holy Spirit waste eight good pages of Scripture (four chapters!) telling us about some guy who obviously is beyond reclamation?! Except —   Samson turns out not to be. Yes, Manoah’s son makes lots of bad choices. He ignores the guidance of his godly parents. He’s pick fights on a whim. He’s driven by the desire to get even with whoever crosses him. He falls in love with women of questionable morals. He winds up marrying a conniving, manipulative woman, Delilah (a Philistine) who on than once betrays him. Samson gives no indication of wanting to serve as Israel’s deliverer, the very purpose God had mind for him and had prepared him for. Samson is a tarnished hero who fails at just about everything he sets his mind to.

   Yet … the Lord, in grace, does not wash his hands of Samson, kick him to the curb, or throw him under the bus – or whatever other expression you might want to use to describe God wanting to have nothing more to do with this man. A close reading of Scripture indicates something else. God worked through Samson despite his flawed character. You see, God was accomplishing his ends and he would cause Samson’s tenure as a judge of Israel to be successful – yet hardly in a way that we would consider a success.

   The second ‘bright spot’ in Samson’s life —   comes here in the passage before us. The exploits you’re probably most familiar with … his killing a lion with his bare hands and the accompanying riddle he told designed to humiliate his wife’s family, his act of vengeance against the Philistines by letting lose 300 foxes with torches tied to their tails and burning up their grain fields … all that is history at this point. Head-shaven and thus rendered powerless, Samson has been set upon by his enemies, bound with ropes he cannot break, and heartlessly rendered sightless by his captors. He’s made to grind grain in the prison where he’s treated far less kindly than an animal.

   In our text we hear how Philistines consider all this worthy of a party. They want to celebrate the capture of the man who’s been such a thorn in their side and over the years killed many Philistines. To be little and denigrate further him they order him brought from his cell. They have him chained between the two central pillars in their god’s, Dagon’s, temple. There they gloat, mock, and insult at him. Once strong and feared because of the havoc he caused, Samson appears docile and compliant. Little do his enemies realize, however, what or perhaps more properly who has been stirring inside him. The opening verse of our passage foreshadows the coming final scene to be revealed when the dust settles. That verse reads, “But the hair on his head began to grow again …” .

   Of course, it never was about the hair on his head. That was only the sign of the Lord’s promise: "the boy is to be a Nazarite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines."

   In prison Samson has been reviewing his life. He thinks back on his sins against the Lord. He regrets now squandering God’s blessings. As he is paraded in front of the Philistines, Samson repents. He tells the servant boy, “Put me where I can feel the pillars … so that I may lean against them.” And then he prays that the Lord may allow him one last opportunity to be God’s servant, to be a disciple as he should be – not in name, but in fact.  “O Sovereign Lord, remember me.  O God, please strengthen me just once more …”, and God answered his prayer.

   We read, "Then he pushed (against those pillars) with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived."

   
Understandably, some events in the Old Testament can confuse us in some respects, but what stands out clearly is that, despite the sin and the messed-up lives of people in the world — including in the lives of people who call on the name of the Lord —  the Lord rises above it all with grace and love that simply cannot be fathomed by our little brains. God did all this to keep the children of Israel safe in the land of Israel, so that over one thousand years later Jesus could be born not much more than thirty miles away from where Samson died. 
God did all this so that you and I could someday learn about his plan of salvation and not put our trust in our own strength, but in the power and love of our Lord, who sent his Son, whose strength could never be taken away from him, even when his life was taken away from him. God did all this so that we could believe his promise that no matter how it looks, we are safe and secure with the one who will not let the walls come tumbling down on us, even if earthly walls do come tumbling down. God did all this so that we can stay away from the things that he wrote about in these books for our learning and instead seek to thank him in every way we can because we love him so much who loves us so much. God did all this so that we can know the joy of the ultimate Promised Land – the place where that crown of life will replace this cross of life.

                                                                                                                                                
   “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Jesus’ words of warning form a perfect picture of Samson. He had the world:  strength, fame, power, leadership, love. Yet he was losing his soul. The God of grace humbled him. Samson repented and took up his cross and followed. He lost his life, but died in faith. His words comprise the most fervent plea that a sinner can make at the end of life. Like the penitent thief, Samson cried out, “Remember me!” Once again a man of faith, he has in mind the things of God rather than men and dies in service to his Savior-God.

   Samson’s name shows up one other place in the Bible. You know where? His name is listed in Hebrews chapter 11 as a ‘hero of faith.’ “Samson … through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and (here is the most important part) gained what was promised.” Samson did all those things in the last moments he lived. He was RESTORED BY GRACE.

   Amen.


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.