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.
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.
2 Corinthians 13:11-14 "THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE"
Trinity Sunday – June 7, 2020
Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send their greetings. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all?.
It can be pretty fascinating when someone tells the story of his or her life. The stories of people’s lives told in biographies and autobiographies are often some of the best-selling books on the market. They’re often some of the most popular movies too when the books are converted to screenplays. Two recent biopics that I’ve seen (both on Netflix in case you’re curious) are The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind and Steve Jobs.
The first is an inspiring, heart-warming story … pure family entertainment … about a 13 year old boy from Malawi in central Africa, William Kamkwamba. The young man’s fascination with science prompted him to build a wind turbine from lumber hewn from indigenous trees, old bicycle parts, and materials collected in a scrapyard. His MacGyver-like invention watered the parched fields around his village and saved lives at a time of severe drought. William Kamkwamba furthered his education, and received a scholarship to Dartmouth College.
The Steve Jobs biopic covers 14 years of the lifetime career of the man who co-founded Apple Inc. Jobs – as many of you know – was a pioneer in the personal computing revolution of the 70’s and 80’s. He parted ways with Apple in very public spat with the man who became the company’s CEO. Jobs went on to have a hand in developing the visual effects industry (Pixar Studios). He then came back to Apple to resurrect the company when it was on the verge of bankruptcy and subsequently introduced the world to the iPod and portable music, and to the iPhone, and to several iterations of Apple computers. I appreciated the movie’s look into Jobs’ humanity and insecurities.
What draws us to movies and books such as these is the fascination we have with the real life stories of real people which are often more often more amazing or more unusual than any fictional account a writer could try to write.
What about your life? Do you have a captivating story to tell, one people would pull off the shelf at a bookstore to read (at least the dust jacket) or plunk down money to see at a theater? While we’d likely scratch our heads at trying to figure out how to tell the stories of our lives, someone from 2000 years ago has done it for us. The Apostle Paul uses some brief, but powerful words to tell the story of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the Trinity’s role in your life and mine. With these familiar words of blessing, he causes you and me to marvel at this mystery because this is ... “THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE.”
1. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
The story of the Holy Trinity in your life has starts with grace – with the absolutely undeserved, amazingly self-sacrificing loving-kindness of Jesus. Why start with something not one of us has ever deserved? Simply put, if not for the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, you and I wouldn’t be here! The story of your life would be completely different and it wouldn’t have a happy ending.
When your life began at the moment of conception, when God caused the miracle of life to happen in your mother’s womb, there was something wrong ... not necessarily something wrong physically, but something wrong spiritually. Right there wrapped around your developing DNA was a deadly, growing sinful nature. You see, your parents had passed on to you what they had received from their parents and what they in turn had received from their parents and so on and so on all the way back to Adam.
That deadly sin tainted your life at conception. It began to show itself after you were born and as you grew … a cruel or hurtful word here, a selfish or heartless action there, a constant stream of self-centered, my-way-or-the highway thoughts that continues to try to dominate your thoughts. There was no real joy, no real satisfaction, no real peace, no real hope no real love in your life, because it was all corrupted with sin.
Sadly, by nature we are so blind with sin that we think we like it! Who of us doesn’t like to get our way? By nature, we like to get the attention. We like people to see how great we really are. Your sinful nature loves to polish up those “great” things you do for others, your neighbor, your company, your school, your community, and tries to brush under the rug the envy, the arrogance, the self-centeredness, the lovelessness you’ve felt or shown.
Yet deep down inside, you and I know it can’t last and it won’t. We know that nothing in this life lasts forever because sin has consequences. Things break … relationships fall apart … corrupt motives or despicable acts are revealed, and over it all, death looms. The ancient curse of the holy God rings out from the earliest pages of Holy Scripture, “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” Sadly, for so many, the story of their lives, no matter how prosperous, no matter how successful, no matter how popular, no matter how famous, ends with death ... physical death leading to eternal death in hell separated from God’s love for all eternity.
But your story and mine is different. Why? You don’t deserve anything different from anyone else and neither do I. What changes the story of your life? The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ …”. You and I were in horrible shape because of sin, so Jesus, the Son of God, did something about it.
As true God, Jesus possessed all things and enjoyed the glories and comforts of heaven, but he gave it all up. With promises made to our first parents and generation after generation after them, Jesus set the stage to show his grace to a world of sinful, hateful humanity. When the time was right, he chose to be conceived and born as a human being, yet he was without sin. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He developed and grew just like you and me, yet there was no sinful nature wrapped around his DNA. As true God and true man, Jesus allowed himself to undergo the difficulties and challenges and dangers of growing up in a sinful world, but that wasn’t the end of his story. he Son of God had far greater dangers and challenges to endure.
Jesus lived up to his name, which means “Savior.” He carried that name because he came to this earth to save you from your sins and from the sad ending of death. To do that, he himself endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of sinful people, and then endured death on a cross. He allowed his blood to be shed – not for himself, but for you. He paid the price of judgment for your lifetime of sin against the holy God, and in doing so, he reconciled you with the holy God. To guarantee that he had both forgiven every one of those self-centered sins and saved you from eternal death, Jesus rose from the dead. It was Christ’s grace that changed your story.
2. The love of God
If the grace of Jesus changed the story of your life forever, what was the motivation, the driving factor behind that life-changing grace? It was “the love of God” – the love of God the Father for sinners such as you and me.
We heard how when he first created everything God took special care in making man and woman. These two were the jewels of his creation. But when they disobeyed the Creator’s holy will, violating the lone command he had given them, they ruined all of creation by their sin. We can trace the discord, anger, frustration, suspicion, and tension so evident in society today back a long, long time ago – to its root origin “in the beginning.”
We probably would’ve written off these two troublemakers then and there. Yet, in spite of their disobedience, in his gracious mercy God still loved humanity and he put that love into action. God demonstrated his own love for every one of us sinners by sending his Son into this world to live and die and rise again to save us. That “love of God” motivated “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” to change the story of your life and my life forever. The classic 1965 pop song, What the World Needs Now Is Love was right ... to a degree. We just need to identify the type of love that’s needed: the Father’s love for rebel sinners. Two thousand years ago the embodiment of that perfect, forgiving, restoring love walked the face of earth in the person of Jesus Christ.
Even now God the Father continues to demonstrate his love in blessings showered on you and me day to day. He provides us with all that we need, and more ... provides blessings for body and soul. Through Jesus, God gives us what we did not have before: real joy, real peace, real satisfaction, real hope that one day we are going to spend eternity with our loving Father in heaven.
3. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit
And what is the rest of the story? The result of the grace of Jesus brought to us by the love of God is “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” – unity shared with God and with each other.
You see, the triune God in his grace and love not only saved you through the work of Jesus Christ, but also made you his own through the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the hearing of his Word, the Holy Spirit created faith in your heart – not by some decision or act of surrender of your own, but through that amazing, powerful Word that shattered your stone-dead heart and made it alive with living faith in Christ Jesus. Through the water and Word of Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit changed your heart and transformed you from a mortal enemy into a reconciled child of God who now has fellowship with Jesus. Now you get to share in all his blessings of grace.
The Holy Spirit, who called you by his power through Word and Sacrament, now by that same power causes you to overflow with hope and peace and love for others. With the Spirit’s help, when a relationship is strained, you can reach out and try to restore that relationship with the peace that comes only from the triune God. When a brother or sister in Christ is grieving, you can comfort them with the certainty of the resurrection. You can live in real hope and peace, even though you live in a world that strives against everything for which we stand as Christians. You can have the confidence to tell someone about their Savior when they desperately need him. You can remain united with your fellow believers – not on the basis of some false unity based on a minimum of agreement, but on the true and pure teaching of God’s Word, particularly this blessed mystery of the triune God. Then someday, when it’s time for the story of your life on this earth to come to an end, you can look forward to enjoying an eternity of Christ’s grace, God’s love, and fellowship with the Spirit and with your brothers and sisters in Christ in the glories of heaven.
The story of your life and the role of the Trinity in your life are more amazing than any autobiography or biopic shown on the silver screen. We could spend the rest of eternity talking about this story of the Trinity in our lives. Until we reach eternity, it’s a story for you and me to share – the grace of Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Praise be to the triune God, because that, dear friends, is the story of your life!
Acts 2:1-21 "SEE THE MIRACLES OF PENTECOST"
Pentecost Sunday / Festival of the Holy Spirit – May 31, 2020
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
The year 2020 will be remembered as the year when plans were upended, when routine activities and familiar events were curtailed, modified, or outright cancelled. Important personal days, which would normally have been anticipated and celebrated, were suddenly relegated to being of lesser importance – compared to slow the spread of a virus. We know about the sense of loss experienced by the Class of 2020, our graduating high school and college seniors. A walk-across-a-stage, receive-your-diploma-along-with-a-handshake, photo-op graduation ceremony — that kind of day just couldn’t be. Couples, too, have had to alter plans for their wedding day. Our niece’s church wedding has evolved into a scaled-back, family-and-close-friends outdoor event on the farm of her fiancé’s parents.
Today, however, is a good day, a great day in fact — and not just because we’ve received the go-ahead to have in-person services again. Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian church. This day was/is pivotal in salvation history because it marks that moment in time when the good news of Jesus as Savior began its spread throughout the world.
It is important that we understand what happened on the first Pentecost and see that it is still happening right now. That’s our brief focus today as we “See the miracles of Pentecost.” We will see how God the Holy Spirit blessed the message of the apostles on that first Pentecost, and we will see how he blesses our message as well.
Before focusing on that first Day of Pentecost, let's back up a week and a half. Remember what happened ten days ago? Jesus ascended into heaven in plain sight of his wide-eyed, mouth agape disciples. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus said to them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus had chosen these men to be his witness to the world.
They seem to have the proper credentials to be Christ’s witnesses, since they've been with him for three years. But would you have chosen them to be witnesses of Jesus? Just look at them! They don’t look like they are fit for this mission. Most of them came from Galilee. Some of them were fishermen. One was a tax collector which meant he would have been hated by the Jews. Another one used to be a zealot who hated the Roman government. Just looking at them as a group would make you think they shouldn’t be witnesses for Christ.
Look, too, at what they had done – how they had acted: Peter proved how timid and cowardly he could be … for when a servant girl pointed out that he was a disciple of Jesus, Peter denied it. Thomas was a doubter … for he refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, even though the other ten disciples told him it was true. On a number occasions we are told how the disciples squabbled among themselves, debating about which of them was the greatest – the most deserving of special honor in Jesus’ coming kingdom. How could these men possibly be witnesses for Christ throughout the world?
Here, we see the first miracle of the Day of Pentecost. Before ascending into heaven Jesus told these men, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” On the Day of Pentecost we see those words of Jesus come true. While the disciples were gathered together suddenly they heard the sound of a loud wind. They saw what looked like tongues of fire descend and rest above their heads. What did that signify?
Luke says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Here, these formerly timid, hide-behind-locked-door disciples were emboldened. They were filled with the Spirit’s power. Peter didn’t deny Jesus on this day. Instead, he stood up and declared that Jesus was/is God’s Messiah, the promise Savior. He proclaimed that to the same people who jeered Jesus and shouted that he be crucified.
The disciples were given wisdom to understand everything about Scripture and not doubt it. It was the lightbulb-going-on-in-the-head moment, that moment of spiritual clarity Jesus had talked about when he promised, “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” Gone were arguments about who was the greatest. Instead, they declared that Jesus was the greatest for he was everyone’s Savior from sin.
That’s the first miracle that happened on the first Pentecost. But does that still happen today as we celebrate Pentecost? Not exactly — but we shouldn’t expect to deserve this anyway. What’s so special about us to be witnesses for Christ? We don’t come from a glorious background. How many times have we been timid and afraid to defend our faith in front of others? How many times have we struggled to believe and doubted something about God’s Word even though God makes it very clear to us? How many times have we been more focused on ourselves than others?
Although we have our shortcomings as his witnesses, God forgives us and through his Spirit fills us with power. No it’s not quite like the power that filled the disciples on the first Pentecost, but Jesus still sends the Spirit with his power. Whenever we speak God’s Word, whether proclaimed from a pulpit by a preacher, or at a bedside by a family member to dying loved one, or a parent to a child in a Jesus storybook, the Holy Spirit is present and active in our message. The Spirit is the one who makes God’s Word powerful and he gives us the power to speak his Word.
Here we see another Pentecost miracle. The Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ disciples power to speak God’s Word, even as he gives us power to speak his word, but there was still that issue of different languages. How could these men possibly be witnesses for Christ throughout the world if they couldn’t speak the languages commonly spoken by the people of those various nations?
God solved that problem in two ways. First, the disciples didn’t even have to go out into the world right away. On this day God brought the world to them. Jews from all across the Mediterranean had made their way to Jerusalem for the spring harvest festival which came fifty days after Passover. They were there because this was one of three great religious feasts God’s Old Testament people observed. So, many Jews had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and were in attendance right there when the events of our text transpired.
It was an international audience assembled right there, but there was still the issue of the different languages. Since the Tower of Babel, when the Lord confused the one language of a people bent on defying him by seeking to make a name for themselves and refusing to spread out around the globe, this had been the case. To put a halt to that arrogance the Lord, of necessity, confounded the people’s speech, causing the workmen to utter unintelligible orders and give incomprehensible directions. That project conceived in arrogance came to a screeching halt and humanity scattered over the face of the earth. Here on the Day of Pentecost we see the reversal. Unlike Babel where people came together and left in confusion, on Pentecost people came together and left rejoicing in Jesus as their Savior. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” the members of that international audience exclaimed. This was a miracle, thanks once more to the Holy Spirit!
The same miracle happens today — not in the sense that one day out of the blue the Holy Spirit enables us to speak in languages we’ve not learned, but the Holy Spirit blesses his church with people who can master foreign languages. The Holy Spirit blesses Christ’s church with men who attain an understanding of Greek and Hebrew, and so assure God’s people what God’s Word truly says. The Holy Spirit blesses Christ’s with missionaries who are able to converse in the language of the people they are called to serve. And, the Holy Spirit blesses Christ’s church by using you to speak the one language that we all speak, the language of Jesus and his amazing forgiveness!That believers such as you and I are able to sharing the message of the crucified and risen Christ brings us to the greatest Pentecost miracle. And that is the miracle of conversion. The Holy Spirit brings about a 180 degree turn in people, turning them from unbelief to faith. Even though the disciples were filled with power and could speak in foreign languages that still didn’t mean that the people would believe.
We’ve only heard the first twenty-one verses of Acts 2. The balance of the chapter recounts the rest of Peter’s sermon in which he brought the law to bear. Without pulling any punches he told the people of Israel that they collectively bore the responsibility of killing Jesus Christ, God’s Promised One. “… you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” But Peter also shared the gospel, declaring that God “raised [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold one him.”
How did the people react? Did they turn a deaf ear? No! Luke tells us, “… they were cut to heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Peter told them to repent and be baptized and they would be saved. On that day 3,000 people became believers. The Holy Spirit brought about that 180 degree turn. They were converted.
That same miracle of conversion happens today — and it’s happened to you and me. Most of us came to know Jesus as Savior in Holy Baptism. Our font is topped with the symbol of a dove. More than a convenient ‘handle’ to remove the top, that dove is a visual reminder of who is at work in baptism. And Jesus continues to send his Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith through Word and Sacrament. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit every time we share the gospel. Will we convert 3,000 people in one day like Peter and the disciples did? Probably not, but it’s still a miracle if the Holy Spirit converts just one person when we share the gospel message with that person. What a miracle — when God brings spiritual life to that which was dead in trespasses and sin … brings life to people like us!
No wonder why Pentecost is such a big deal … and big day for the Christian church! A number of impressive miracles happened on that first Day of Pentecost Sunday: Jesus disciples were filled with power from the Holy Spirit to proclaim God's Word boldly. The Spirit enabled Jesus’ disciples to speak in different languages to reach out to those people, and when the people heard the message they were brought to faith.
Those miracles still happen today, for it is the Spirit’s ability to convert – to bring spiritual life to the spiritually dead, and that can’t be stopped or even be put on pandemic pause. It’s happening right now for people throughout the entire world who are being led confess what we confess … that Jesus Christ is our Savior. What a miracle that is!
Ephesians 1:16-23 "NOW, HE'S EVERYWHERE!"
Seventh Sunday of Easter / Sunday of the Ascension – May 24, 2020
I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
A man was describing to a friend a scene he had witnessed on a trip he recently taken to the mountains of Colorado. He was driving uphill on a major Interstate highway when he overtook a long freight train going the same way, but at a slower speed. The train was being pushed by two diesel locomotives that sounded as if they were straining even at full power. He was surprised, having come from the Midwest, and thought, “Is this how they move trains in the mountains? Just two engines pushing all that weight?” A few minutes later he came alongside the front of the long string of cars. There he saw five more locomotives pulling the train – seven engines in all. And when he saw that, he learned a lesson.
You see, the man had been under some serious strain for quite a while. He was feeling tired – exhausted would be more a more accurate word – and he was wondering whether he’d be able to hold up under all the pressure, … even make it through another week. Seeing that train, it dawned on him that his life was like that — he had felt as if he was pushing a load uphill with all his might … his energy near to the point of running out. What he had forgotten that God was there — that Christ was there — in the lead, at the front of his life, pulling with a power far greater than his own strength. Jesus was there pulling him through the valleys and up the mountains of life. More than that, Jesus – his God – had made a tremendously reassuring promise to him: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Christ would always be there for him. That is the message of Ascension.
The word ascension comes from the event spoken about in Scripture at the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Luke companion volume, the Acts of Apostles. It is the event in Christ’s life that took place 40 days after Easter. The main lesson that we learn from the Ascension of Our Lord is this: “NOW, HE (Jesus Christ) IS EVERYWHERE.” He is no longer confined to a certain place as he once was when he was physically beside his disciples and walked with them and talked with them. Now Jesus has ascended on high and he is everywhere with all of his disciples – with you and me, too.
If you were asked to name the top four events in Jesus’ life, what would you say? … to what would you point? Obviously, there is his birth; there is his death; there is his resurrection. But finally, there is his ascension into heaven. Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, the risen Christ gathered some of his followers on a mountainside outside Jerusalem. He spoke to them words of encouragement and then he physically – visibly, in plain view of these followers – rose into the air, up and up, until a cloud hid him from their sight. Why did Jesus do this and what does it mean for us today? We find the answers to these questions in the verses that are this morning’s text.
Again, most of the time when Jesus here – during the days of his earthly ministry, he could only be in one place at a one time. The twelve year old boy Jesus was in the Temple courts conversing with the learned teachers and could not be with his parents who were making their way home to Nazareth after the Passover, so he was missing and they were worried and had to turn around and go back and find him. Prior to Easter, Jesus would walk and eat and sleep – like everybody else. Speaking in theological terms, we call that time Jesus’ State of Humiliation. He humbled himself, voluntarily lower himself, and did not make full use of his divine power.
Then came Easter, and everything changed! Jesus once more took up the full use of his divine power. Now, although he still had a human body, things were different. He passed through the solid, rock walls of Joseph’s tomb and then an angel rolled back the stone away from the entrance to let the world know his grave was empty. On Easter Sunday afternoon Jesus went for a walk with two followers to the village of Emmaus; then he disappeared in an instant. Easter evening he paid a visit to his frightened disciples and literally just showed up. For the next 40 days Jesus appeared in on-again, off-again fashion, confirming to them that he had really, physically risen. But now, it was time for that to end, time for Jesus to be fully glorified, as he was from all eternity.
Why didn’t Jesus just stay here on this earth? It would be tempting to say that scenario would have been preferable. But imagine if Jesus would have stayed — what would it have been like to be a Christian? Everyone with an illness would be competing to get healed by him, competing with each other to get noticed and have him address their needs. We’d all want him to solve our problems, provide world peace, stop wars, cause our relatives to come to church with us. What do you think your chances of talking to him would have been? Even if every one of us would only get 20 seconds with Jesus, that would mean that only about a million and a half people a year would get some time with him … and the rest of us would have to wait!
The Ascension marks the end of Jesus’ visible presence on this earth – when he is only in one place at one time. The Ascension marks the beginning of Jesus’ invisible presence on this earth, when he’s everywhere at the same time. Look especially at the last six words of our text from Ephesians: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be the head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” When Jesus ascended into heaven, that was the moment he began to fill “everything in every way.”
Now when you pray to Christ and someone else in Africa prays to Christ, he is with you and listening to you, and he’s with that person in Africa and listening to him. He knows and answers both of your prayers at the same time. When you are traveling across the country, Christ is with you. But he’s also with your relatives back home. Now, he’s everywhere! The Bible tells us that Jesus fills everything in every way. How can that be, you ask? Remember, Jesus is God, and if he’s God, he can do whatever he wants.
Is this good or bad, that Jesus is with you and watches you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Maybe there’s a part of us that doesn’t like to hear that, because that means that he sees us when we sin. He’s always with you. You’re never on break. He’s always watching you, listening to you. He knows exactly what’s going on with you … 24/7 … because he fills everything in every way. Does that make you uncomfortable? Does that make you feel guilty?
Remember, the Jesus who is always with you, is the Jesus who died for your sins. You can always turn to him, confess the sins that you have committed, and know that he forgives you, every time. Every time you stumble and fall in your Christian life, Jesus is right there, to lift you up, and to strengthen you to become the Christian that you want to be. Every time you hear the Word of God, Jesus is right there. It’s Jesus who is speaking to you, not just the pastor. Every time you receive the Lord’s Supper (as we pray we will once more be able to do), Jesus is there. It’s not just the pastor standing there giving you Christ’s body and blood and telling you that your sins are forgiven. Jesus is there with the pastor merely echoing the words of your Savior.
A Christian died and went to heaven. While he was ‘up there,’ he had a chance to talk to Jesus face to face. “I was always with you,” Jesus said to the man.
“I know, the man said. “Sometimes, though, it felt like you weren’t with me, that I was all alone.”
“Oh, but I was with you,” Jesus said to the man. “Remember when you were young, and you made that mistake, and you had to spend the night in jail?”
“How could I forget?” the man said.
“I was with you in there. I heard you pray to me and ask for forgiveness, and I forgave you. Remember when your boss called you into his office, and you thought you were going to get a promotion, but instead, you were downsized and out of a job that day? … right after you bought a new house and your wife was pregnant — do you remember that?” Jesus asked the man.
“I was there with you. I heard you when you prayed for help. And I took care of you. Remember when you were in the waiting room and the doctor came in and told you that your wife had died, and that night, you were all alone in your house? I was with you.”
“I was always with you. I never left you. I heard every prayer you prayed. I forgave you every time for every sin you committed. I was always there.”
Friend, that’s the kind of God you have. You don’t have a God who sits up in heaven, far away from you, who watches you from a distance, who often is too busy to pay attention to you. Maybe if I pray hard enough and long enough, he’ll pay attention to me. That’s not the kind of God you have.
You have a God who is with you right now, who came down to this earth 2000 years ago and became a human being. You have a God who died for you, who took your sins away. And instead of ascending up into heaven and leaving the world, he ascended into heaven and now fills every inch of the world. Instead of being up there all by himself relaxing, away from you, he is down here with you, working in your life, blessing you and guiding you. That’s the kind of God you have. You never have to ask, “Where is God?” He is right here, right now.
Someday, you’ll be able to have a conversation with Jesus Christ in heaven, and he will remind you of all sorts of moments in your life, moments when he was with you. Until then, remember - he fills everything in every way. He is with you right now, tomorrow, and always, and that is the message of the Ascension.
Acts 17:22-34 “REVEALING THE UNKNOWN GOD”
Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 17, 2020
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
What would you think about a girl who has an empty picture frame on her nightstand and tells you that it is a picture of her dad? She doesn’t know who he is, so she makes him up. She talks to him at night. She writes him letters and sends him gifts, addressing them to “my dad” and hoping that somehow they get to him. Yet through it all — there’s never any response, never any personal connection, no personal relationship, no assurance that he actually loves her or even thinks about her. Even if she dreams up an ideal father, she never actually gets to meet him, sit in his lap, or fall asleep in his arms.
How sad when people have the same sort of feelings about God! Imagine it, … you know there’s a God, but you figure he’s distant — perhaps thinking about you at times, but then maybe not. You send up prayers to him, but you’re not certain they’ll ever be heard or answered. Because the uncertainty is so depressing, you make up your ideal god. You decide how you want to craft him – what you want your god to be like. But even if you dream up a god that fits what you want, deep down you know that he’s just that — a dream, a creation of your mind. You have concluded that the real god is distant and unknowable.
So you do what you can. You send him gifts. You give money to charities and you hope that he is paying attention. But you hope as well that he is not paying too much attention so that he can read the selfishness in your heart as you write that check out. You hope that he’s watching another channel during your bad moments, and you hope that he is really tuned into you during your good moments. And you really hope that it isn’t the other way around. You call him by all sorts of names. You call him “God.” You call him “nature” and to cover your bases you support appealing environmental causes because you’ve told yourself that it is the right thing to do. Your demonstration of good stewardship of the earth shows you respect him – or respect “it.” You also are careful to say nice things about the man named Jesus just in case he really did have some connection with God. A lot of people think he did and you want to play it safe, too.
Maybe you even make bold pronouncements about what God would or would not do … all the time knowing for sure, because he is the “unknown God.” When things go well for you, you assume that he’s happy with you; when things don’t go well for you, you assume that he must be upset with you. Yet as you look at your life, you can’t sense any rhyme or reason to why things happen the way that they do. The lyrics of Freewill by the 80s rock band Rush seem to ring so true: “A planet of playthings / We dance on the strings / Of powers we cannot perceive.” When things go poorly and you can’t find anyone on earth to turn to — well, then you just can’t find anyone to turn to because God is unknown to you and what little you know of him at the moment seems to suggest that he has it in for you. So you stare at the empty picture frame and throw up your hands in despair at ever getting a picture to fill it.
That is how much of our world today lives. People are, as Paul said, “religious in every way.” But the true God is unknown to them. As a result there’s a sad emptiness to their existence. Paul saw it and sensed it as he walked about the city of Athens. Luke reports that the Apostle was “greatly distressed” as he realized the spiritual state of the people.
Are you “greatly distressed” when you see similar things in the lives of people you know? You should be! If not, consider what it means to you that you know the Unknown God. It means that you wake up in the morning and you know how the God of the Bible feels about you. You know he takes a keen interest in you. He cares about you and your family. He’s fully aware of what’s happening in your life in the present because he’s not “out there” on the edge of the universe but he with you – at your side. His imminence – his proximity to you, closer than close – is due to Jesus.
And because you’ve “met” Jesus (believe in him as Savior), you know, as Paul explained to the Athenians, that the true God not only made you, but also “determined the times set for [you] and the exact places where [you] should live.” You know your life has not been a succession of random occurrences. Your life has been under his control and direction from the moment of your conception straight on through to this present hour. And it’s going to continue to be that way until that appointed moment when his holy angels snatch your immortal soul out of this dying world or Jesus himself comes on the clouds of glory to claim you and every other believer and takes us all to heaven. It is most definitely true, as the Apostle noted,“in him we live and move and have our being.”
More than your knowing about that divine awareness of who you and what’s going on in your life, you also know how the true God feels about you. From his revealed Word you know, first of all, that it is exactly as you suspected, as your conscience has told you — God doesn’t look kindly on sin in general or your sins specifically. You also know from his revealed Word that it’s worse than you suspected. You know that this God hates all sin – yours included (though you secretly believe you are morally superior to say, pick-a-number … 82% … of your neighbors). Your picture of God is not a fuzzy, vaguely defined picture of a God who periodically sticks a pin into a little doll with your name on it, brings you some earthly suffering, and sends you on your way. No, your picture is a clearly defined one of a God who punishes sin justly with eternal death in hell.
With the clarity of this picture of the true God fixed in your mind, you also understand why some people much prefer to live with their malleable, self-made image of an Unknown God, whose feelings and actions they can leave purposely vague and undefined. Such a god they don’t have to fear. Such a god, they can tell themselves, will give them a pass on just about anything.
But you know not only the true God’s holy justice, you also know, secondly, his perfect love. You know that Jesus is most certainly someone who had a connection with God! It is the closest of connections: Jesus was (and is) God’s eternal Son! You know that as you read about Jesus and watch him in the gospels. You have a crystal clear picture of who the true God is and what he’s like. As Jesus said in last week’s Gospel Lesson from John 14: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” When you see Jesus, you see the true God. When you see Jesus’ perfect life, you know that the true God is perfect. When you see Jesus healing people, making time for one hurting person, you know that the true God is a God to whom people aren’t numbers, but names, faces, individuals, and souls. And when you see Jesus dying on a cross to pay the punishment for all sins, you know that the true God is a God of unimaginable, personal love. He is a God who will never leave you or forsake you. He is a God to whom you can always turn for help, comfort, reassurance, and forgiveness.
You know the peace, hope, and joy that come from having your picture frame filled in, the peace, hope, and joy that come only from seeing and knowing the true God. In fact, that’s probably not as accurate as it could be, because we can’t draw an exact parallel between your situation and the little girl who one day gets a picture of her father in the mail. Because even though her father now has a face, she still has a rather impersonal relationship with him. No, the exact parallel with your situation would come if that little girl was staring at that empty picture frame and her father showed up at the door to say that he'd come home and he was never leaving her. That’s the kind of relationship you have with the Unknown God who’s become known to you by faith in Jesus. It's a relationship where he knows you personally, loves you personally, and is personally active in your life.
No wonder Paul was “greatly distressed” that the Athenians didn’t know this God! Although they gave every impression of being knowledgeable and even wise people, by confessing that they did not know who this God was they were left sitting in front of a blank altar, praying to a blank picture, stumbling around with an image in their minds of an Unknown God.
So when the opportunity came along to talk to the Athenians heart-to-heart and bring clarity, Paul took it. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly the ideal preaching opportunity. They had already tipped their hand as to what they thought of Paul’s teaching by calling him a “babbler” (literally, someone who, like a bird, picks up a seed of knowledge here and there, but really doesn’t know much). The learned men of the Areopagus seem to have invited Paul to speak to them mostly out of curiosity. So Paul could hardly have been hoping for a warm reception or a warm response to his sermon, but he went anyway.
Do we go when we have similar opportunities, … or do we buy into the age-old argument that there are two things that dare never be discussed in polite company – politics and religion? Do you pray for God to open doors … that he would you chances to talk about the Unknown God to others who are obviously in the dark and groping about for spiritual truth? Or have you gotten good at slamming shut those open windows as though the draft might make you sick? Do you decide ahead of time who won’t listen, and who therefore isn’t worth your breath? Paul didn’t.
It is never a good idea to limit the work of the Holy Spirit and presume to know what he will or will not accomplish through the Word. Because Paul revealed the Unknown God to the men of Athens that day, he practically got laughed out of the Areopagus! But he didn’t leave emotionally beaten down and bedraggled, with the proverbial “wind knocked out of his sails.” He did not leave emptyhanded, rather he left with some souls won for Jesus. These souls were important enough that the Holy Spirit caused their names to be record in this history book of the early church, Dr. Luke’s Book of Acts. God named these individuals: a man named Dionysius, a woman named Damaris, and others.
So, speak when the opportunity arises – when the Holy Spirit opens that door or window. When you begin to speak, begin to speak from where people are spiritually, and don’t be surprised that’s where they are! Where else would you expect them to be? Paul says that God has made his presence known to people – pre-written this rudimentary religious ‘software’ into their brains “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him.” That’s why people think about and talk about the Unknown God. Begin there and go on from there. Acknowledge their interest in things spiritual as the Apostle Paul did. His non-threatening opening was … “I see that in every way you are very religious.” Of course, they were! All those marble statues and altars proved it. Paul didn’t start by yelling at them, deriding them, and saying: “You poor, misguided fools! Your knowledge of God is so pathetically limited! Let me tell you ignoramuses a thing or two!” Paul had more tact and love for them.
Paul understood the learning curve needing to be surmounted and how that could be accomplished only with the Spirit’s help through the preaching of crucified and risen Christ. These men of Athens were like someone reaching for something in the dark, trying to grasp something nearby but just out of reach. So Paul began by acknowledging that they were searching – even implying that their search was a good thing. Then he told them that he wanted to help. He started where they were and talked about what they knew. And he did so ... to get them to where they needed to be, to have them know what they should. He knew the only reason they did not know these things was because he hadn’t yet told them.
So also with you – if there are friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors ("FRAN"s for short) in your lives whose religion consists of an Unknown God, people whose god is dreamed up or result of misperceptions from childhood fantasy or adulthood fears — if they do not yet know the God who created them, loved them, and saved them, realize it is only because you haven’t yet told them. Don’t start by berating them for what they don’t know. Instead, take what they do know – that God is powerful, that God is holy, that God hates sin – and then tell them what you know: that hr is also love, that he sent his Son to take the punishment for sin, that they can have a personal relationship with the God who was previously unknown, and that the Bible fills in that blank picture frame in great detail.
Sometimes we don’t think like that – in terms of our being in a position to reveal God to people plainly. Sometimes we figure that the reason people don’t know the true God and his Son is because they’ve heard the message before – and rejected it. That’s probably not true anywhere near as often as we might think. The fact is that many people with whom we come into contact probably haven’t heard law and gospel at all – or at least not for many years – or, if they have heard it, it was presented poorly, with so many errors added in, that it was an incoherent, incomprehensible mess. You’d probably be amazed at how little your FRANs actually know about God and especially about his Son Jesus! But you know him (Jesus), and them (Father and Son) – and know it with ‘super-clarity,’ thanks to the Holy Spirit!
So do like Paul did. Revealthe Unknown Godto them. Fill in the picture frame. Introduce them to their Unknown God so that they too may know how good it is to be in a relationship with the known God.