May 10, 2019- Jesus Alone, Free from Legion- Luke 8:26-39

possession

Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. Luke 8:26-39 (ESV)

We don’t hear much about demon possession today, although we learn in Scripture that there are powers and principalities that work against us, as well as our own sinfulness and the age old fallen human desire to make ourselves our own god. We have a similarity with the demon possessed man- we are in bondage to sin, whether or not it is markedly visible to the world.  We are separated from God because of our sin.

The demon possessed man didn’t ask for Jesus’ help to be set free. The man was so far into bondage to the legion of demons that he couldn’t ask for help if he wanted to.  Jesus came to him.  This is how the Kingdom of God comes to us.  Jesus came to earth as a flesh and blood man to reach into the world, to reach out to us with the gifts of faith, repentance, forgiveness and redemption.

The possessed man didn’t earn or deserve to be set free of the demons. Jesus saving him from that possession had nothing to do with the man-  and everything to do with Jesus.

By His grace, Jesus sets us free from those things that would keep us from Him. He forgives our sins.  He gives us the grace to love others, to serve others, to live in a way in which we can say to others, “See what God has done!”  In Christ, our sins are forgiven- and the old Adam is sent to drown in the abyss, like the possessed horde of pigs.

It is indeed good news that Jesus comes to us in our need, in our helplessness and in our utter inability to save ourselves.  May we have faith in Christ alone, and fall upon His mercy and grace.

 

April 24, 2019- Born Again to a Living Hope- 1 Peter 1:3-12

jesus is not here

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. 1 Peter 1:3-12 (ESV)

In Christ we are born again to a living hope. One of the many amazing things about the grace of God is that all that we are and all that we have is a gift from Him. In and of ourselves we are nothing but dead in trespasses and sins, as the apostle Paul teaches us in Ephesians 2:1-3.

In the Garden of Eden our first parents discovered the sin of pride – of wanting to be God- and they learned the consequences of disobeying God. (Genesis 3)  Ever since the Fall, human beings have been mortal and doomed to suffer and to die as the consequence of this original sin.

Jesus shakes up that paradigm. If natural law were the last say, none of us could save ourselves by our own merit.  All of us earn and deserve eternal death and hell, and that is exactly what our fate would be if we were left to the consequences of our actions.

Yet God has mercy on us. Out of His desire to save us, He sent Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins. Our death sentence, our consignment to eternal punishment, was revoked at the moment when Jesus cried from the Cross- “It is finished!” (John 19:30)  Paid in full. Set free. The curse of the Garden, set over all of creation, was broken.  Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, was given to suffer and die and take the penalty FOR US.

The apostles’ testimony was given to us so that we would know the joy of Jesus’ Resurrection from those who witnessed it first, so that we who did not see can believe. We have been given, by the gift of faith, the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

Salvation and life are God’s gifts to us. We add nothing to the salvation equation except for our unbelief, rebelliousness, imperfections, and of course, the dirty rags of our sins.  Just as we love our own children even though we are always cleaning up after them and providing for them, God loves us and provides for us in spite of our inability to repay Him in any way. The reality is that the faith we need to even acknowledge God is itself a gift from Him.

The Sacraments- instituted by Jesus and given as gifts to us- are for everyone. We are given baptism, in which the Word of God and the water bestow the gift of faith, the gift of being named and claimed as God’s own child, is given for all ages and stages.  The effectiveness of baptism is not reliant on a person’s ability to understand or to ask for the gift.  We are given the gift of the Lord’s Supper, the very Body and Blood of Jesus in with, over and under the elements of bread and wine. In the simple gift of bread and wine we receive a foretaste of the feast to come. We receive the very real presence of Jesus, in which we are given comfort and our faith in Him is strengthened.

Our trials today may seem overwhelming. Even though we hold each other up, because we are the hands and feet of Christ here on earth, we grow weary.  Many of us have health concerns that tax our ability to do even the most basic of tasks.  Some of us live in chronic pain and/or with debilitating diseases.  Many of us know financial poverty far better than we would like to. Others of us live with the grief of losing loved ones- spouses, parents or even children.  The trials and pains of this world are not the end of our story.  We are being tested by fire so that our faith is refined, and we are all the more willing to turn to Jesus and cling to Him, our Risen Lord.

April 9, 2019- Peter Betrays Jesus, and We Do Too- Mark 14:66-72

peter-denial

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”  But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”  And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. Mark 14:66-72 (ESV)

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Peter. He thought he had the inner fortitude to confess Jesus even when it could mean his hide.   There are times when we all think that we can be confident to confess Christ, and then our old Adam comes out and our words and actions betray Him.

The ability to remain faithful is not within us. This may have been the lesson that Jesus had for Peter as well as for us. Whether we stand or fall in the faith is not reliant on on our own desire, willpower or merit.  If Peter, the apostle, who walked and ate and lived with Jesus, could betray Him, who do we think we are?

The saint side of us (which is a gift of God, a result of God choosing us as His own) wants to cling to Jesus and wants to live for Him, even when it means our own personal discomfort or sacrifice.  We as sinners want to be God and we insist on having our own desires fulfilled- our own personal comfort and our own advancement and benefit.  It is inevitable that the saint and the sinner will have some skirmishes.

The apostle Paul discusses this struggle in Romans 7 – the things he wants to do he does not do, and the things he does not want to do, he does.  It is the struggle we all have and will have as long as we live in this lifetime.

Yet God gives us the gift of repentance. He gives us the Good News that Jesus died for ALL of our sins- even the times when we are faithless, when we fail, when we outright break His law.  No one is “too bad” for God’s grace and forgiveness.

Jesus forgave Peter and commended him to service and ministry even though Peter betrayed Him. We still sin and our actions betray Jesus every day.  Even so, we are still, by faith in Jesus, by the grace of God, named and claimed as His own children.

Thankfully Jesus doesn’t just leave us to the consequences of our sins. We are baptized, washed, covered in His righteousness, because we believe He is who he said He is and that we trust that He is enough.

March 29, 2019-Sitting in Jesus’ Glory or Taking Up Our Cross? Mark 10:35-45, Luke 9:23

request of james and john

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.  And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45 (ESV)

Many people believe that God works on a quid pro quo system which means, “If I do this, then you will do that.”  Examples of this mindset are.  “If I do great works of penance for all the sins I committed, then God will forgive me,” or “If I give ‘beyond the tithe’ to Christian ministries, then God will bless me with wealth and health and so on.”

We learn from Jesus and from the apostle Paul that God does not work on the quid pro quo system. We cannot earn our place in God’s economy. No one can follow Jesus unless the Father draws him- John 6:44. God doesn’t need anything we have.  He is the Giver.  Anything we have to give should be given in service to our neighbors, with thanks to God who gives us everything.

James and John are asking the wrong question of Jesus. Jesus’ mission has nothing to do with two guys arguing over which one is more special. They don’t realize that Jesus is the only one qualified to drink the cup that was prepared for Him. Jesus is the only acceptable and holy sacrifice to pay the ransom for fallen humanity.  James and John did not understand that the greatest in God’s kingdom are those who serve and glorify God and not themselves.

Jesus came to save sinners (Mark 2:13-17) and to rescue the lost- lost people like us who are powerless to save ourselves no matter how many good works we do.

Following Jesus has nothing to do with our own glory. It has everything to do with God’s glory. We can’t earn, deserve or bargain for God’s love. Faith in Jesus alone- which is a gift of the Holy Spirit- is what is required.  We respond to this gift in humble service, from a grateful and joyful heart.

Jesus is the one who paid our ransom. Jesus is the one who covers us with His righteousness, so that when God looks at us in judgment He does not see our sins.  All He sees is Jesus.  It is in Jesus’ strength and because of His love that we can dare to follow Him.  He is with us even through the valley of the shadow. He has taken the cup of death for us, that we may live.

And he (Jesus) said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 (ESV)

January 28, 2019 The Words of the Prophets, Life in Christ Alone- Zechariah 7:8-14, Romans 3:21-25

 

zechariah_prophet

And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another,  do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”  But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.” Zechariah 7:8-14 (ESV)

When God sent prophets to His people it was generally not to tell them what a great job they were doing. Prophets usually appeared with bad news and warnings of impending judgment and wrath.

Zechariah was no exception to the “harbinger of bad news” rule. The hope is always that by hearing the Word of God that people will do a 180 (i.e. repent, which means to turn from) and turn toward God and His way. Unfortunately, people didn’t always listen to the prophets or follow their instructions.

In and of ourselves we are not able to follow the Law. Our hearts are made of stone. We don’t naturally care for our neighbor.  Any psychologist will attest that human beings naturally have a self serving motive behind everything we do.  Left to our own devices we naturally make ourselves our own gods. Whether we refer to the doctrine of original sin or the total depravity of man, our fallen nature is proven true as Paul teaches in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  As Martin Luther taught:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.” – From Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, on Sanctification, the Third Article of the Creed

Our prayer is that God would give us open hearts that hear His Word when it is preached, and that He would give us the gift of repentance, that we would not end up hard-hearted and unforgiving.

Thankfully, in Christ we have been given forgiveness and goodness that we have neither earned nor deserve. When God looks at us- by virtue of the faith we have been given, by His means of grace, He sees Jesus.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. Romans 3:21-25 (ESV)

December 28, 2018- The Gift of Joy…or the Pursuit of Stuff? Isaiah 9:6-7, Isaiah 29:19

shepherds

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:6-7 (ESV)

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on our own personal comfort, and therefore on the pursuit of stuff. Who wouldn’t want a lovely adjustable bed or an instant cosmetic fix for facial imperfections? Those who deal with late night insomnia and have a subscription to cable have no doubt been inundated with the endless procession of infomercials that extol the virtues of just about every product under the sun.  The late night infomercial announcers sing the praises of stuff you never knew existed, and stuff you never knew you needed….until now!  For example, why bend over to wash your feet when you can use:easy feet

The problem with the pursuit of stuff is that there is never enough stuff, or the right stuff.  Material things in and of themselves are morally neutral- God made the world and everything in it, and gave humanity stewardship of it. (Genesis 1:26-28) Stuff isn’t good or bad.  Our use of stuff can be considered good or evil, and as we are saints and sinners at the same time, our use of stuff is generally a mixed bag.  Sometimes we are good stewards of God’s gifts, and other times we are not. Our dilemma begins when we esteem the created thing more than the Creator.  We are all guilty of breaking the First Commandment.

The First Commandment:

You shall have no other gods.

What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. – Martin Luther, from the Small Catechism

None of us can claim to perfectly fear, love and trust God above all things. All of us fall short in this regard, whether it is by making idols of our relationships, or our wealth, or our position in the community, or by simply not believing that God is in charge of everything.

Yet Jesus came to set us free from our sins. While we were still sinners and lost, He broke the curse of Eden so we would not have to endure death and hell. Jesus came to this earth as a human, yet as God at the same time, to live the perfect life we cannot live and to be the perfect sacrifice we cannot be. In Him we are given true joy. We who are named, claimed and marked with the Cross of Christ forever, in our baptism, by the faith that He has given us, have been set free to live joyfully.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is generated internally. Happiness is fleeting and is largely dependent on our circumstances and our feelings. Joy is given- it comes from outside of ourselves. Joy is not dependent upon ourselves or our feelings. Joy is a gift of serenity and peace, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:19-23)  We are given joy in the Lord regardless of our circumstances, because in faith we trust that He is with us forever, and we share in eternal life with Him.

The Prince of Peace is with us.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, we are reminded that our salvation and our joy come from Christ alone. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this as Isaiah said.  God’s will be done.  His joy is given to us, from outside of us.  It is a gift, unearned, undeserved and freely given.

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah 29:19 (ESV)

November 30, 2018 The Lord’s End-Times Timing, Promise and Hope – 2 Peter 3

Cross

(Peter writes: )This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder,that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God,and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. 2 Peter 3 (ESV)

Eschatology (the study of end times) is not a major focus for Lutherans as a general rule.  Yet at the end of the church year we look with hope to what Jesus has promised us beyond this life.  He will return again.  He will remake the heavens and the earth.  There will be a day when the earthly kingdom is no more and we will live fully and completely in God’s heavenly kingdom.  The paradox of living in “now but not yet” will end.  Until that day we live in that promise that Jesus will return and establish that “not yet” kingdom.

This chapter is a bit frightening. Peter tells us that when Jesus returns the universe as we know it is going to be destroyed by fire and remade.  Nothing of this “now” world is going to be left. Then Peter tells us that in order to be part of the new creation, we need to be holy.  On the surface Peter’s warning sounds like an admonition for us to “straighten up and fly right.” However, if we are honest with ourselves we know that we are definitely not holy. We are definitely not capable, by our own strength or reason, to “straighten up and fly right” by our own power.

Peter is not telling us to put on the window dressing and go into full blown holier-than-thou Pharisee mode. He redirects us outside of ourselves, to count the patience of our Lord as salvation. True holiness and sanctification are to be found in Christ alone.  Rather than despair about how wicked and terrible we are, we only need to confess our sins to Jesus, cling to the Cross and know that He has already won our forgiveness and salvation.

Christians have always faced ridicule and persecution for believing in Christ. The Man of Sorrows isn’t all that popular among those who worship the gods of power or money or self.  One doesn’t have to look very far to find the scoffers and critics of Christian faith that Peter warns us about.  In the greater culture, believers are presented as being intolerant of others, or ignorant and uneducated because we stand for Christ and believe in the One True God.  We are scorned because we believe that truth is not a matter of opinion.

In some places Christians are put in jail or even killed for the sake of Jesus. The opponents of Jesus (Satan the adversary, our own sinful selves, and those who have not been transformed by the Gospel) fight hard to convince us to surrender to the enchantments of the world.  We are all tempted by the invitation to hedonism, to serve the god of self rather than to take up the Cross of Christ.  We sin constantly, every day.  Even so, the Good News is we belong to Christ.  We can’t make ourselves good or earn our way in.  We are only justified through the grace of God, by faith in Christ.  Through the water and the Word in our baptism, and through the hearing of the Gospel, He has named us, claimed us, and is coming back for us no matter what misery or what valleys of shadow we walk through in this world.  He brings us to repentance, forgives our sins, and delivers us from sin, death and evil.

We do not know the day or the hour of Jesus’ return, but He is coming back. It might be tomorrow or thousands of years from now. We might face Him at any time at the hour of our death.  Even so, our faith- which is a gift from God- is counted to us as righteousness. We can look forward to Jesus’ return and the remaking of the world with hope and confidence.  We know the world is getting crazier and scarier as time goes on, but we are not alone.  Our hope is in Jesus.