Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Teacher of Israel Gets Schooled in Heavenly Things

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[Jesus said:] “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).   
We live in a day in which rote memorization is generally seen as unnecessary for academic pursuits. It is considered dry and stale, a time filler (or killer) that distracts from more valuable learning activities. But I thank God for a pastor who insisted that his catechumens memorize all six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, because if I was pressed to point to the specific time and place I first had the peace of knowing I am saved by grace alone through faith alone, I would have to say that it was in the basement of Grace Lutheran Church, in Nunda, South Dakota, the day I memorized the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith...”
It was with these words that it all clicked. I had a better appreciation of my Baptism as an infant, some 14 years earlier in Oslo Lutheran Church, rural Volga, South Dakota. Years of Sunday school lessons at Midway and Bethel Lutheran churches suddenly made sense. Those stories of the Old Testament were not just histories of heroes of long ago to teach lessons about making the right choices and the consequences of choosing the wrong—they pointed to the Savior. The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ person and work were given for more than a moral example. Jesus’ death and resurrection did not just make my salvation possible, it fully achieved it. And best of all, I realized I did not even have to somehow muster the faith in order to make this my own, the Holy Spirit does it all for me—from beginning to end! What a burden was lifted from my heart and soul! And I am very much indebted for Pastor Olson’s insistence on memorizing the catechism!
Not that memorization for its own sake saves you. I suspect Nicodemus had all of Scripture memorized. He is a leader of the Pharisees, a branch of Judaism that take Scriptures seriously. In fact, Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel,” suggesting he is a leading authority among his contemporaries. He’s well-trained in the ways of his religion—the religion of the Pharisees—which, in a nutshell is this: if you keep the commands of God well enough, the kingdom of God is yours.
We’re usually tempted to think of the Pharisees as evil, malicious plotters, but that really isn’t fair. They sincerely want to please God, and they’re generally respected by the people. The Pharisees are the ones who have been holding things together in Israel since the day of the Maccabees. It’s because of their teaching, example, and enforcement that people seek to honor God by keeping His laws, by doing the right thing. They’ve also been waiting for the Messiah to come and set up a kingdom right here on earth. And since Jesus has been working some extraordinary signs, they feel it is their responsibility to check this new rabbi out.
So Nicodemus drops by one night for a little impromptu theological interview. “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these things that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
As is often the case, Jesus cuts right to the real issue at hand. Nicodemus, you want to talk about heavenly things? Let’s skip the pleasantries and put all our theological cards on the table. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
“Born again”? What does that mean? How do you go about being born again—how do you accomplish that? After all, what did you do to be born the first time? Nothing! You were there, of course. But you didn’t do anything to be born—being born was something done to you. I don’t think there is anyone here who would have the nerve to walk up to your mother, remind her of the 15 hours of labor and then say, “Didn’t I do a great job being born, Mom?”
And now this Jesus says that you can only see the kingdom of God if you’re born again. This is confusing for Nicodemus—the teacher of the Law. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “What do you do to get into the kingdom of God? Nothing.” But that can’t be right. How do you become righteous by doing nothing? So Nicodemus probes: “How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). That doesn’t make sense, Jesus. It’s biologically and physically impossible.
But Jesus doesn’t backpedal. In fact, He doubles down: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). To enter the kingdom of God you must be born of water and the Spirit. And what do you do to be born, Nicodemus? Nothing. It’s done to you. And it’s the same with this spiritual birth. It’s the Holy Spirit who does this rebirth to you, and He does it with water and Word—He does it by means of Holy Baptism.
So what about this whole notion of working your way into the kingdom? That’s the sort of teaching that men come up with, but it’s not God’s plan. Thus Jesus continues, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The works of man don’t save man, Nicodemus: you have to be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.
All of us alike come into this world outside of God’s kingdom. Contrary to what some teach, infants begin their lives under sin’s condemnation. As Job once said of our physical birth: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” (14:4). And Paul said, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). We can only conclude with David, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).
A thousand physical rebirths cannot change the deep depravity of original sin. But there is a water that purifies, that brings with it God’s Spirit. As Ezekiel prophesied of the Lord: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean… I will give you a new heart… And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules” (36:25-27). The Spirit works that new birth through the water of Holy Baptism.
I suspect that by this point Nicodemus is somewhere between “puzzled,” “astounded,” and “scandalized,” for Jesus has just told him that the Pharisees’ entire plan of salvation is just plain wrong. They say, “You’ll be saved if you do,” but this Teacher come from God is telling him, “You can’t be saved by doing, but only by being done to. You can only be saved by the work of God.”
So Jesus nudges “the teacher of Israel” at little bit more: “Do not marvel what I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
That’s a hard one for Nicodemus, too. His theology is neat and tidy: you can tell who the saved people are because they’re the upstanding citizens who are really trying to do their best over their lifetime. But Jesus says that the Spirit is going to go where He wishes and save all who believe. It might be a Pharisee or a fisherman. A prostitute or a tax collector. Or even a thief hanging on a cross.
None of this makes sense to Nicodemus, because none of it fits his religion. And as long as Nicodemus is convinced that salvation comes by the works you do, he’s not going to understand the Gospel. That’s why Jesus asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12).
“You do not receive our testimony,” says Jesus; and He’s speaking of the testimony of God throughout Scripture. Jesus is not hijacking the Bible away from the Pharisees and starting a new religion; rather, He is proclaiming what God has declared all along. It is the Pharisees who have departed from Scripture. They’ve set aside the promises of a Savior who will deliver them from sin into eternal life, instead settling for a king who might deliver them from their earthly enemies and teach them a higher, holier way of life here and now.
Jesus gives Nicodemus two examples of how the Old Testament points to Himself—Jacob’s ladder and the bronze serpent. He says, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:13-15).
Jesus is not just another rabbi who happens to have power: He’s the Messiah, the Son of God, come from heaven to carry out God’s plan, to do what man can’t do for himself, to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth, to save mankind by being lifted up into death on a cross, that whoever believes in Him will have forgiveness and eternal life as a gift.
The teacher of Israel gets schooled on heavenly things. Jesus subtly, yet succinctly, lets Nicodemus know that he has been living and teaching all the wrong stuff. For all of his studying of Scripture, Nicodemus has missed the proclamation of the Gospel in the Old Testament. No wonder he cannot believe heavenly things! No wonder he cannot understand the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, or how all of this fits with the kingdom of God and eternal life.
But the time will come when he will! The Spirit goes when and where He wishes. And though we have no indication of it in our text for today, the Holy Spirit will have His way with Nicodemus. The teacher of Israel will be brought to faith in this Teacher come from God. When the Pharisees plot Jesus’ death, it will be Nicodemus who defends the Savior, who bids his colleagues to listen to the Christ (John 7:50-51). And when Jesus has died, it will be Nicodemus who brings the myrrh and aloes to prepare His Savior’s body that it might be laid to rest.
John 3:16 is sometimes called “the Gospel in a nutshell,” for it sums up the Gospel: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This does indeed proclaim salvation by grace: heaven is not yours because you have done enough to earn it, but because Christ has done it all for you to save you, and gives it to you freely as a gift. The kingdom of God is yours! You have eternal life! You have been born again by water and the Spirit! What Good News!
Now, of course, the devil hates this news more than anything else, and he will war against it in any way he can. Remember also that your sinful flesh still clings to you, and your Old Adam is often a willing ally of the old evil foe. So let’s address these foes who would have you dead once again with their seductions.
You will be tempted to believe that Christianity is really about being a good person, and that all this talk about doctrine is just for pastors and professors. But doctrine matters, sound teaching of Law and Gospel makes all the difference—just look at what happened to the Pharisees when they got off track! They reverted to placing the emphasis on what we must do to earn God’s love, rather than on the love God has lavished on us in His grace. Repent, do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it!
You’ll be tempted to believe that God loves you more when you’re good than when you’ve sinned. It’s true that God delights in your good works rather than your sins, but that is not the same as His love. God’s love is unconditional; He gave His only Son to die for you before you were even born. Even though you have failed, God continues faithfully to offer you life and salvation by His means of grace. If you believe God’s love for you changes according to your behavior, you’re saying that you earn His love by your good works, your obedience, not Christ’s obedience and His innocent suffering and death. Repent, and rejoice that God’s love for you is in Christ, and God’s love for you in Christ will never falter.
You’ll be tempted to forget your Baptism or misunderstand its power and benefits. You’ll see it as a one-time thing in the past. But Jesus tells you in this text that being a Christian isn’t just that you were born again, but that you are born again—not just that you were baptized, but that you are baptized. If you ignore your baptism—your being born again, you’ll start to believe that your life comes from what you do, not the Spirit. Repent. In fact, repentance is the ongoing joy of living in your Baptism. It’s the constant acknowledgement that you cannot save you from your sin, but that Christ has.
All such thoughts that we save ourselves are the teachings of man found in every false religion. The Gospel is that the triune God has made you alive in Christ by His loving work of the cross. You are redeemed. Christ has died and Christ is risen for you. He does not come now to judge you, to condemn you for your sin. Rather, He comes with grace and salvation, to tell you that you are born again by the work of the Spirit, to maintain that new life by His Word and His Supper. He comes to declare that you are entered into the kingdom of God
How can these things be? Because you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Life Breathed into Dry Bones

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“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:13-14).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It sounds almost like a scene out of one of my favorite movies, “The Sixth Sense.” The young man talks to his counselor, a ghost.
“I see dead people.”
“In your dreams?”
“No.”
“While you’re awake.”
“Yes.”
“Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?
“No, they’re in a valley, a valley of dry bones, dead and lifeless bones.”
But this is not a Hollywood movie; it is a biblical account. The young man who sees dead people is the thirty-year-old prophet, Ezekiel. And the Counselor with whom he speaks is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord, who has brought Elijah to this valley. And the “dead people,” “the dry bones,” that Ezekiel sees are the Israelite refugees returning from Babylonian exile.
As Ezekiel writes this, Israel is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone. The ten northern tribes were conquered by Assyria 150 years earlier. They had been wiped out and replenished with foreigners transplanted from other vanquished nations. Now the southern tribes are captives in Babylon, far from the rubble that was once Jerusalem. That is how nations and peoples disappear in the ancient world. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
Ezekiel is the prophet called by God to speak to the remnant of Israel held captive in Babylon, and one would think that it will be his job to pull the trigger and declare their final judgment. That’s what they’ve got coming, isn’t it? All that God had given them is gone because of their own stubborn refusal to trust Him and follow His Word. But the Lord declares that He has different plans for His rebellious people. Even if they are faithless to Him, He will remain faithful. He will not forget His promises. That’s Good News, right?
Unfortunately, the faith of the child of God is constantly threatened by two opposite dangers: overconfidence and despair. This is certainly true of the people of Israel. In the previous chapter, Ezekiel had to preach scathing Law to them in order to convict them of their pride and self-conceit. Here, in our text, the prophet has to overcome their reluctance to accept the Good News of restoration. It seems too good to be true, so rather than rejoice, they have fallen into doubt and despair. “Our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off,” they lament (Ezekiel 37:11).
In His mercy and grace, the Lord grants Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones that is to convince his hearers that their despair grows out of their refusal to believe in a Creator who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). They are struggling because they do not trust in the One for Whom “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37) according to His Word.
God’s question to Ezekiel—“Can these bones live?”—normally would have to be answered in the negative. Ezekiel’s reply is interesting. He says, “O Lord God, You know,” implying that only the Person who made all those bones could make them alive again. The Lord promises to do just that.
At His command, Ezekiel prophesies to these lifeless bones the Word of the Lord, and there is a rattling noise as bone comes together with bone. To Ezekiel the valley seems no longer to be full of disconnected bones but of skeletons—an improvement to be sure, but still not exactly the poster children for life.
Ezekiel prophesies again, sinews and flesh fill out the bones. Now the valley resembles a battlefield littered with corpses. Human bodies, yes, but still lifeless human bodies. Dead people. They have no breath. Like Adam of old, they need the Spirit of God to breathe life into them. So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again. The prophet obeys. Breath enters the army of corpses. They come to life and stand up.
Through this vision, God reveals how He will recreate His people now apparently lost in Babylon. Humanly speaking, Israel’s hopes appear as unlikely as expecting a vast array of skeletons, dried and dismembered, to come to life again on their own. It just isn’t going to happen. Yet at God’s command, death must surrender its victims. Against all odds, Israel will continue. The Lord will give life to the nation. He will bring the people back to their land. He will raise them as a people from death to life, to be a blessing to all people—to be a blessing for you.
That’s right… for you! You see, the Lord has to bring Israel back so that a virgin might conceive and give birth to a Son in Bethlehem. It is necessary that Jerusalem and the temple might be rebuilt, so that the Son of David might enter the city triumphantly at Passover, so that the King of the Jews might be led outside the city walls to a cross. Simply put, the Lord raises that nation from the dead in Babylon so that He might raise you from the dead for the sake of Christ.  
In all of this we see the creative power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Word of God. Don’t underestimate the Word; don’t ignore it. By it all things hold together. The Word creates, renews, sanctifies, and enlivens. Bodies long dead are resurrected to life. All by the preached Word; yet not by the word of the preacher, but by the power of the Holy Spirit who breathes life into dry bones.
Wouldn’t you love to have been there to watch Ezekiel preach life into dry bones? Or maybe not? It’s a little too weird, perhaps. I suspect many people today would find it easier to believe in a zombie apocalypse. We’re certainly far too sophisticated to think that dry, dead bones can come to life with a sermon.
The same could be said of the conception of Jesus. A young virgin in some hick town in Galilee is told by an angel that the Holy Spirit will come upon her? The power of the Most High will overshadow her? She will conceive, and give birth to a son—the Son of God? No way! That’s inconceivable!  
Or how about Christ’s bodily resurrection? It’s terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable to the old Adam in us to think that the tomb of a dead man is empty, His body risen. Yet that’s the point of Peter’s Pentecost sermon: Jesus was not abandoned to the grave. His body did not see decay. God has vindicated Jesus by raising Him bodily from the grave. “And we are all witnesses of the fact.”  
Remember, this is the same Peter who wept bitterly when he shamefully denied His Lord three times just hours after he had proudly claimed: “Don’t worry, Jesus. I’ve got Your back. Even if the rest of these guys fall away, I’ll stand beside You.” Now he’s boldly proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection and calling the crowd to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
So what happened? What happened that Peter and his brothers, who just fifty days earlier had been so timid and frightened, would now preach boldly and fearlessly? Jesus had been raised from the dead. Jesus had breathed on them, bestowed His Holy Spirit, forgiven their sins, and then sent them out to forgive sins. And that made all the difference in the world.
The creation of Adam. The valley of dry bones restored to life. The nation of Israel returned to her land. The annunciation and incarnation of Jesus. Christ’s resurrection. His equipping the apostles for their ongoing work of testifying to His death and resurrection. The Pentecost miracle. What do these all have in common? This: The Holy Spirit breathes life where there was not life. And this is the case from creation all the way to Pentecost. But the Holy Spirit didn’t stop on the day of Pentecost. He continues to breathe life into dry bones like you and me.
Like the exiles returning from Israel, there are times when we need to be shaken ourselves. We need to have our bones rattled by the Word that says, “You are no more alive than those dry and dusty bones. Dead in sin. Dead in iniquity. Dead in transgression. Dead in lust and idolatry. If you persist in this state you will be dead for eternity. Not just physically dead, but spiritually dead. Hellishly dead.
But brought to contrition and repentance, we also need to hear the life restoring Gospel: Those bones of yours can live, and do live. Not by your efforts, of course. After all, what can bones do to live? But God, being rich in mercy, has made you alive together with Christ. You have been saved by grace through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. And how does He do it? “Not by might, nor by power, but My Spirit,” says the Lord—the Spirit who works through the Word. For that is how the Spirit works—solely through the Word.
We confess the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life.” By the Spirit-Breath of God, we breathe; we have life. The Spirit and the Word; the Word and the Spirit—the two always go together. You can’t have one without the other. The Holy Spirit is a preacher—calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying, stirring up faith, forgiving sin, bearing fruit—all by the Word He causes to be preached, the Sacraments through which He bestows His gifts.
When that little congregation gathered together at Pentecost, there was the sound of rushing wind—the breath of Jesus blowing over His Church. And there were tongues like fire, separating and resting on all the disciples. Wind and fire were the unique elements of that first Pentecost. They were like the fireworks and balloons at a grand opening. God was inaugurating the Last Days. The time of the end had come. Christ had died on the cross for the redemption of the world. He was raised again to life, for forty days being seen by over 500 eyewitnesses. Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father, disappeared into a heavenly cloud, out of sight but not absent; rather, truly present by Word and Spirit.
Peter preached that day. He preached boldly to thousands, where fifty days before he was afraid to even admit to a servant girl that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. The resurrection of Jesus and the Spirit will do that to you—turn cowards into courageous preachers of good news. Filled with the Spirit, the disciples spoke in a variety of languages and dialects, and everyone who was in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost heard the preaching of Jesus in His own native tongue. It certainly was a marvelous, miraculous sight to behold.
But most the time the Holy Spirit flies under the radar. He does not seek to draw attention to Himself, but to point to Christ. He operates discreetly—even hidden—hidden in simple things like Word, water, and bread and wine. This is even true of the day of Pentecost. The lasting gift of Pentecost is not rushing wind or tongues of fire or speaking in fluent foreign languages. The lasting gift is the Spirit-breathed Word of God. The Word of God preached out of the mouths of men with the very breath of Jesus. “The sins you forgive are forgiven.”
At the end of that Pentecost day, three thousand were baptized. Three thousand were born again by water and the Spirit. Three thousand had the Word have its faith creating, faith enlivening way with them. Three thousand became members of Christ’s body, continuing in the teaching of the apostles, in the breaking of the Bread, and in the prayers. Three thousand who were dead in their trespasses and sins, were born to new life by the power of the Word and the Spirit.
Your personal Pentecost is your baptismal day, whenever and wherever that was. There you were joined to Jesus by the Word and Spirit in the water. And in a real sense, every Sunday is Pentecost when you hear that your sins are forgiven in Jesus, that your death is answered for in Jesus, that your life is hidden in Jesus, and His life—His own Body and Blood—are hidden in you. Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit breathes life into your dry bones. You, who were once dead in your trespasses and sins, are given new life, eternal life.
And this will be brought to completion on the Last Day. The forgiveness of sin that the Spirit applied to you in the Gospel will bear its ultimate fruit in you. The Lord and giver of life, sent from the Father and the Son, will raise your body from the grave. Your dry dead bones will not only be raised to life, but to everlasting life! Never to die again! To be forever with the Lord!
Can these bones live? Yes, they can! As surely as Christ is risen from the dead is sure, these bones can live. As surely as the Word and breath of the Spirit blow over them, they will live. As surely as the Holy Spirit breathes new life in Christ in you, you will live—you will live forever. Just as surely as He brings you this Word of the Lord to you today: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

In the Word, Into the World: Jesus Prays for His Church

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“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:17-18).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
What has kept the Church going for the last two thousand years? How do you explain it? The Church has persisted through persecution, popularity, power plays, poverty, and prosperity. It has endured crusades, inquisitions, false teaching, scandals, corruption, and gross mismanagement. It has outlasted dictatorships, demagogues, and democracies. It has survived popes and councils, voters’ assemblies and synodical conventions, and the meetings that go on after the meetings. It is really quite miraculous! Any human organization that operated this way would have long since disappeared, but the Church goes on, nearly two thousand years after the scandalous death of its founder.
What is the key to the Church’s survival? How could a ragtag band of 120 Jewish followers grow into a Church that quite literally embraces the world across all national and ethnic boundaries? How could a Church whose first recorded official act is to cast lots to see who would succeed a traitor become, in a matter of thirty years or so, a movement that embraced the entire Roman world and dotted the Mediterranean with congregations who proclaimed life in the death of Jesus? What protected them in a culture that was hostile to their message? What propelled them into the world already chock full of religions? How did the Church not only manage to survive all those years, but to grow robustly and thrive?    
One thing. One thing has kept the Body of Christ going: Jesus’ prayer. Jesus prays for His Church. That’s the thought of the day for this Seventh Sunday of Easter. The same Lord Jesus, who hung on the cross and rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of His Father prays for His Church.
Nowhere is this more profoundly revealed to us than in the high priestly prayer of Jesus in the upper room on the night of His betrayal. This is the same room where He washed His disciples’ feet as a servant, where Jesus instituted the sacramental meal of His Body and Blood, where He taught them about His love for them, their love for one another, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and their fruitful union with Him. And now in this same room, Jesus prays for His Church.
This prayer is the true “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer only the Lord Himself can pray as the High Priest of the world. He lifts His nail-scarred hands before the throne of grace, and He prays continually for His disciples who are sprinkled like salt on the earth. He prays for His Church, and His prayer upholds the Church.
What does Jesus pray for His Church? That she be successful? Popular? Powerful? Prosperous? No. Jesus prays that His Church be protected by the power of God’s Name. Jesus prays that the Church be one. Jesus prays that His Bride be protected from the assaults of the devil. Jesus prays that she be sanctified to be a sign of salvation for the world. In other words, Jesus prays that His Church be “in the Word and go out into the world.”
In today’s text, Jesus specifically prays for the apostles, those who the Father gave Him to send into the world. We believe that the apostles, though unique, are not confined to those men who were with Jesus that night in the upper room. We know that Matthias, as we heard in our reading from Acts, was added to fill the vacancy of Judas. Matthias was not there in the upper room that Maundy Thursday, but by the call of God he was added to make a Twelve. And there was Paul, the thirteenth, the “untimely born” apostle no one really asked for or wanted.
We believe that the ministry of the apostles continues today in what we have come to call the pastoral office or the office of the holy ministry. The apostolic Church has an apostolic office, not by succession of persons, but by the action of the Word of the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus prays for His Church. He prays that His joy might be fulfilled in His apostles. Apostolic ministry is to be joyful ministry, filled with the joy of Jesus who in His joy endured the cross and scorned its shame. This is not the kind of joy that is based on outward circumstances. It is nothing less than the joy of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake, the joy of sinners repenting and being forgiven.
I’ll be the first to admit that the holy ministry can become a joyless task, and at times even a burden. Sometimes it’s our own fault. We pastors can be a burdensome lot—complaining, whining, carrying on as if Jesus were not reigning from the right hand of God, acting as though everything is on our own shoulders, and the whole world wants to see us fail. We are, after all, men of clay, conceived and born in sin, just like you. We will and do sin. We will fail. We will doubt.
Other times though, this joy is lacking because the Church has come to expect anything and everything from her pastors except the one needful thing—the Word of life and salvation. We want coaches, counselors, CEOs—everything but shepherds leading the Lord’s flock. But the joy of ministry is not in being appreciated; rather, it is the joy of people coming to a greater awareness of their sinfulness yet growing to a deeper faith in Jesus. The most joyful work of a pastor happens at the font, the altar, in the pulpit,  the confessional, in the hospital room, beside the deathbed—wherever Christ’s Word is creating and sustaining faith.
Do you want to be a joy and not a burden to your pastor? Be in the Word. Come eagerly to hear the Word of God he proclaims and teaches. Regularly receive Christ’s Body and Blood from your pastor’s hand and hear Christ’s Absolution from his lips. That will bring him more joy than you can ever imagine.
But that’s not to say this life will be easy. As the disciples overhear this prayer, Jesus reminds them that the world will hate them on account of the Word they have been set apart to proclaim. Like Jesus Himself, His ministry is “in the world yet not of the world.”
And here we find the two great denials that occur. The first is to remove oneself from the world. But Jesus prays that His ministers not be isolated from this world but be immersed in it. Jesus embraces the world in His death, and His apostolic ministry embraces the world in His Name. That kind of outreach will bring you into contact with some parts of the world you might rather avoid—the misfits and miscreants, the fools and felons, the whores and hustlers, the addicts and alcoholics, the losers and lepers of our day.
The other great denial is that we become “of the world.” We lose our saltiness. We hide our lamp. We become indistinguishable from the world. “Not of the world” means that we are different. You don’t expect your pastor to get drunk and go out carousing on Saturday night, or any other night. It wouldn’t be good if your pastor didn’t show up for church on Sunday. And this is not just because he’s the pastor and paid to be the pastor, but because he is to be an example to everyone of what it means to be in this world but not of this world.
Jesus prays for His Church. And so, although in this passage He is praying for His apostles (and the pastors who follow in the office of holy ministry), He is praying for you, too. You, who are the Body of believers gathered around the marks of the Church—“the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacrament in accordance with the Gospel of Christ” (Ap VII and VIII (IV) 5).
And notice what the goal of Jesus’ prayer is: “That they be one, just as We are one.” Jesus is praying for the unity of His Church. Now, that might sound a bit far-fetched today, with thousands of denominations, everyone claiming a monopoly on the truth. We might wonder, what happened to this prayer of Jesus? Did the heavenly Father miss His Son’s memo? What began as a fairly, though not entirely, unified movement that swept across the Mediterranean world, is today a movement so fragmented by sects and denominations that the idea of any sort of external unity is almost a joke.
Jesus prays that His Church be one as He and the Father are one. We Lutherans worry a great deal about “unionism,” about uniting with false teachers, and rightly so. Even if Scripture was not clear about avoiding such entanglements the history of the Church would be enough to prove the folly of worshiping with others of differing confessions of faith. The truth always ends up getting lost as everyone seeks a lowest common denominator to gain an outward show of unity.
But we should also expend just as much energy worrying about separatism, about creating needless divisions based simply on matters of personal preference. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all. There is only one Bread and one Cup, one Body and Blood of one Savior named Jesus. And wherever and whenever you see and hear Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and forgiveness spoken in the Name of the crucified and risen Jesus, you have a sure sign that the prayer of Jesus is having its way, keeping the Church together in the Name of God.
Jesus prays for His Church. Jesus prays that the Church will be protected from the evil one. Jesus knows the enemy well. He tangled with him one-on-one in the wilderness. That very night He’ll wrestle with Him in Gethsemane. And Jesus knows that the devil will give His Church no rest. Doubts will creep in. Unbelief. Despair. Failure. Success. All of these will seek to derail the Church from its mission. And so Jesus prays for the Church’s protection.
I think we sometimes underestimate the danger. We act like we think the greatest enemy of the Church is mismanagement or disorganization or a bad economy or shrinking population base. But those are only tools of the real nemesis. No, the greatest threat to the Church is the one you can’t see—the devil, who hates for people to be free, who hates to hear the great Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the justification of sinners.
Jesus prays for His Church. We are in constant need of His prayer. We cannot stop the devil or protect ourselves from him. But we have the Lord’s high priestly prayer, His intercession for us, in which He pleads: “Keep them from the evil one.” That’s what ensures that Satan cannot harm us. Oh, he may work some mischief; the ancient serpent may make our life miserable for a while as he is prone to do. But as Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism, he is “God’s devil,” and whatever he does, God uses for His ultimate purpose to unite all things in Christ.
Toward that end, Jesus prays: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth.” As baptized believers in Christ, we are called to be different from the world; we are sanctified, consecrated, set apart as holy by the Word that is truth. We know the awful truth of our sin. But more importantly, we know the greater truth of salvation in Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins and risen from the dead for our justification.
Jesus prays for His Church. Remember this when you doubt, when you despair, when you fall and don’t have the strength to get back up. Remember this when you think there is no future for the Church, when the Church looks so impotent, so irrelevant, so out of touch, so ill-equipped to meet the challenges of our day. Remember who prays for the Church, for you—the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Word and the prayer of Jesus are what keeps the Church and her ministry going even after all these years. It’s been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven, and yet His Word is as living and active today as ever, creating faith, bestowing salvation and everlasting life, bringing you this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

How to Overcome the World: A Sermon for Christians Only

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“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This sermon is only for Christians, for those who have been born of God and who are His children. I know, that sounds harsh, so exclusive and intolerant in our inclusive and tolerant age, but in the verses that follow our text, St. John makes it especially clear that he is addressing Christians: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). And the fact is, the actions for which St. John calls can only be done by Christians. They are a fruit of faith, not a catalyst for God’s favor. They can only be motivated by the Gospel not spurred by the Law.
We’ll look at that more in depth, but first permit me a brief illustration.
A few years ago, in his blog, Pastor Matt Richard, brought to my attention a comedy sketch that featured Bob Newhart as a psychologist who offers five-minute counseling sessions. A woman comes into his office to deal with her phobia. “I just start thinking about being buried alive in a box and I panic,” she confesses.
“Has anyone every tried to bury you in a box?” he asks.
“No, but it really makes my life difficult,” she says. “I can’t go into elevators or tunnels or anything boxy.”
“So, what you’re saying is that you’re claustrophobic?”
“Yes… yes, that’s my problem.”
“Okay,” he responds. “I think we have enough here. I’m going to say two words to you right now. I want you to listen to them very carefully. Then I want you to incorporate them into your life.”
“Shall I write them down?” she asks.
“You can, if it makes you more comfortable. But it’s just two words. Most people have no problem remembering them.”
“Okay,” she replies.
“Are you ready?” he asks, and she nods affirmatively.
“Here it is… Stop it!
Now the sketch went on for another four or five minutes. But I obviously don’t have the comedic talents of Bob Newhart. And even if I did, you didn’t come here to be entertained but to hear the word of God proclaimed.
So why did I bring it up? As a reminder to us who are preachers and parents. Believing that simply telling sinners to “stop it” (that is, speaking Law without Gospel) carries the power to exact lasting change is as unrealistic as a psychologist telling one of his patients to “stop it” to cure them of their fears and neuroses. In fact, it is worse, because at least the basis for psychological counseling is found in law—natural law.
Can you imagine Bob Newhart as a preacher?
“My friends, do you keep on sinning? Well, just stop it! Do you have doubt, struggle, and worry? Well… just stop it!” Yet the sad reality is that this is the message that is heard from pulpits across America each and every Sunday. Pastors give principles and bumper sticker-like slogans that are essentially Law in order for people to stop sinning and live a victorious life. And it fails miserably.
What is wrong here? A failure to correctly understand, properly distinguish, and appropriately apply Law and Gospel. Jeff VanVonderen summarizes the problem this way: “The greatest misunderstanding concerning the Law comes in the area of our perception of its purpose. Somehow we continue to believe that the Law is God’s provision for people to live victoriously.”
So, how does this all fit in a sermon entitled, “How to Overcome the World?” Let me explain. The Law clearly limits sin through its threats of punishment and its promises of favor and well-being. The Law can curb sinful actions. The Law can prevent us from doing some really stupid things to ourselves and other people. But the Law has its limits. The Law is totally incapable of changing the attitude and behavior of the heart, let alone saving a person. The Law commands, but it does not give us any power to fulfill its conditions. Ultimately, the Law by itself will only lead to smug self-righteousness or the depths of despair.
My dear Christian friends, let’s keep in mind that the Law is good. It shows us God’s holy will. However, the Law does not save. The Law does not contain the power to convert the heart or forgive sin, for that belongs solely to the Gospel. The Law doesn’t “reform” the sinful nature; it only reveals our sinful nature. It leaves us exposed as sinners and drives us to Jesus! And that is a very good thing, for only the Gospel can bring lasting redemption and change (Titus 2:11-12).
So, how does this fit with our text? St. John writes: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:1-5).
On the surface it might sound like John is preaching conditional Law. “Want to be a Christian? Want to overcome the world? Then obey God’s Law. Love God. Love your neighbor.” But if you listen closely, you’ll find that such words are not written to make people Christians, but they are written to people who are already Christians—to those who already have been born of God.
St. John is just telling us how this rebirth will evidence itself in a person’s life. If you have been born of God, you love God. If you love God, you will automatically love people. If you love the Father, you will love His children, too. Loving God automatically involves being willing to submit to God, to put His thoughts and ideals into your head, to let Him steer your behavior. Such obedience is possible for believers who have been reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit.
This may come as a surprise to young Christians, who are still fresh from the thinking process they just went through in order to understand the concept of justification by grace through faith alone. In that context we are taught by Scripture that we cannot do what God requires. Paul also teaches this repeatedly: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10); “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9). But what is impossible for an unbeliever is not only possible, but essential in the life of a believer. In each reborn Christian, God has forever forgiven all sin, changed the clothes from filthy rags of sin to righteous robes, snapped the power of sin to control, implanted the Holy Spirit, and changed the mindset. The goal of saving us is not merely negative—to get us out of hell, but positive—to transform us into men and women who think and act like God.
Here’s another surprise: God’s commands now become joyful to obey, no longer burdensome. The Law of God is indeed bad news to people without faith in Christ. But believers love to hear God’s will and do it. The faith and obedience that connect us to Jesus enables us to share in His triumphs. In John 16:33, Jesus tells His disciples: “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Several hours later, as Jesus dies on the cross, He crushes the head of the serpent for us and gives us His victory. But like Christ’s overcoming the world through the cross, our overcoming the world is for the time being not readily apparent to anyone but those with the eyes of faith.
Sadly, many people, even many Christians who confess that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, picture the life of a Christian once brought to faith as a gradual progression, overcoming the world, growing in holiness by pulling ourselves up the stairway to heaven one step at a time. But just as our justification is a gift from God, so is our sanctification. God not only makes us His children through His Word, He teaches us how and empowers us to live as His children by His Word as well. This is how we overcome the world.  
No human teacher can teach us about that because no human teacher can give us eternal life. Overcoming the world is not a matter of merely reflecting on our experience of God, or even of interpreting the Scriptures in the light of our personal experience. In fact, if we attempt to overcome the world on our own, we will fail miserably. Those who try to climb their own ladder into heaven will, like Satan, plunge themselves and others into hell instead.
But we have no need to climb up to heaven. The triune God has come down to earth for us. The Father sent His Son as one of us. Now He comes to us through His Word and Sacraments. The Holy Spirit uses these means of grace to teach us the things of God and to bring us to the Father for Jesus’ sake.
Surprisingly, God’s best work in our lives is often done as we undergo trials and temptations. There we discover the hidden work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word most clearly. Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us. It tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health. Though trials are unpleasant, at times even painful, they ultimately refine and purify us.
As long as we operate by our own power and intellect the devil lets us be. But as soon as we meditate on God’s Word and draw on the Spirit’s power, the devil attacks us by stirring up misunderstanding, opposition, and persecution through the enemies of the Gospel in the Church and in the world. The purpose of this attack is to destroy our faith and undo the hidden work of God’s Word in us.
But these attacks are counter-productive. Rather than weaken our faith, they serve to strengthen our faith, driving us back to God’s Word as the only basis for spiritual life. We discover that we cannot rely on our own resources in the battle against Satan and the powers of darkness. We realize that if we rely on our own wisdom and power we will fail. Our spiritual weakness makes us trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God’s Word. Through temptation we learn to seek help from God in meditation and prayer rather than rely on ourselves.
Here now, in this world, we walk with Christ on the way of the cross. We do not experience the splendor of union with our heavenly Lord, but we share in His suffering and pain as we bear our own cross for His sake. Through the attacks of the evil one we are drawn further out of ourselves and deeper into Christ. And that is a very good thing! For Christ is the One who has overcome the world for us.
Overcoming the world is not a superior way of being a Christian that is open only to the spiritually elite; it is something given to every faithful Christian. It is the ordinary life of faith in which you live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. You overcome the world as you attend the Divine Service, participate in the Holy Supper, read the Scriptures, pray for yourself and others, resist temptation, and work with Jesus in your given location here on earth.
You are not raised to a higher plane above the normal, everyday life, but you receive the Holy Spirit so that you can live in God’s presence as you deal with everyday life in this fallen world, a life filled with other broken people and thankless jobs, with sin and abuse, with inconvenience and heartbreak, trouble and tragedy, your own failures and foibles. You are not called to become more spiritual by disengaging from earthly life, but simply to rely on Jesus as you do what is given for you to do, as you experience what is given for you to experience, as you endure what you are given to suffer, as you enjoy what is given you to enjoy, and as you love whom are given you to love.
It’s quite simple really. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Many times the world, the devil, and your own sinful flesh will seem too much for you to overcome. And there’s a reason for that: They are far too much for you to overcome on your own!
But take heart; our Lord Jesus has overcome them all for you! So go out and live in His strength, trusting in His mercy and grace, rejoicing that you have been born of God, know that in Christ you have overcome the world. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  

 In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Evangelist Tells the Good News about Jesus

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“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
My fellow evangelists! That’s right. I called each of you an evangelist. Now, I know, when they hear the word evangelist, most people today will think of a traveling missionary, someone like Billy Graham, who goes from town to town holding revivals and preaching in huge stadiums. Or perhaps, they’ll picture someone who goes door-to-door, seeking to win lost souls for Jesus one at a time. But that understanding is far too narrow. The word “evangelist” comes from the Greek word, which literally translates as “Gospeler” someone who preaches or speaks the Gospel.
The Lutheran Cyclopedia defines evangelism as “the activity of Christians which tries to bring unregenerate mankind under the influence of the Gospel and to win and keep souls for Christ.” That makes it sound more complicated than it really is. Evangelism is simply telling the Good News of Jesus Christ and what He has done for our salvation. We speak the Gospel, trusting that through that Word, the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
While pastors are called to the public ministry of preaching, each Christian has a calling to share the Gospel. Jesus said, “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is not so much a command, as it is a description of what Christians will naturally be found doing. Set free from the burden of sin and guilt by the blood of Jesus Christ, Christians will naturally share the Good News with others. That’s what you do when you have Good News, isn’t it? You share it!
 We see this in Acts 8, where the church at Jerusalem was scattered in the persecution following the death of Stephen, and “those who were scattered went about preaching the Word.” In the next sentence we are told that one of them, Philip, “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.” This Philip was one of the seven deacons chosen to “wait on tables,” so that the apostles could devote their full attention to “the ministry of the Word.” To distinguish him from the apostle named Philip, he is often called Philip the evangelist.
Though Philip met with some difficulties, his efforts were blessed by the Lord. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. Many accepted the Word of God that Philip proclaimed. The Gospel spread throughout Samaria. And so the Holy Spirit called Philip to the next step in God’s plan to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” With these simple instructions, Philip headed down the road, leaving behind his very successful ministry in the well-populated region of Samaria, not knowing what lay ahead of him as he went to the desert area of Gaza.
I daresay I might have asked a few more questions. “When do you want me to go?” “Where exactly do you want me to go?” “Whom do you want me to see?” “What do you want me to do when I get there?” But the word had come from an angel of the Lord, and Philip immediately obeyed. He just “rose and went.” A distance of about 50 miles, a couple of days’ journey on foot.  
By God’s arrangement, Philip came upon a man from Ethiopia, an independent state in Africa, located between modern Egypt and the Sudan. An official in the court of the Ethiopian queen, he was an educated, influential man. He was also a deeply spiritual man. He believed in the true God, and worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. He was obviously committed to his faith with a strong desire to learn more of God’s Word to have made such a long journey.
The fact that he owned a scroll of Isaiah speaks volumes about his wealth and his commitment to hear and understand God’s Word. Books in the ancient world were hand-copied and thus very expensive. At the same time, his status as a eunuch made him ineligible for full membership in the Jewish community.
Directed by the Holy Spirit, Philip ran up to the chariot. As he did, he could hear the words the man was reading, and recognized the passage from which they were taken. So he asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
The man’s answer was brief and to the point: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” This does not imply that the Bible cannot be understood without interpretation from a pastor or the traditions of the church; but simply shows that a beginner in the study of the Word will do well to have some help in comparing parallel passages and in pointing out the connection.
The Ethiopian invited Philip to join him in the chariot. The passage which was troubling him was the beautiful section from Isaiah 53:7-8. There it is said of the Suffering Servant that He was like a sheep led to slaughter, that, as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so He did not open His mouth. He was falsely accused and wrongly convicted. He was sentenced to die in a travesty of justice.
The eunuch asked Philip: “About whom… does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip, could hardly have found a more suitable text for proclaiming the Gospel. Though all of Scripture points to Christ, Isaiah does so more often and more clearly than any of the other prophets. No wonder Isaiah is often called the “evangelist of the Old Testament.”
As he expounded the Scriptures, Philip had the opportunity to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. Christ and His work of salvation are the key to properly understanding all Scripture. No doubt as he spoke of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Philip also spoke of receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized in Jesus’ name for life in His kingdom.
As they were going along the road, the chariot came to some water. And the Ethiopian, half in eagerness and half in fear, pointed to the water and said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” This tentative question stemmed from the Ethiopian’s position in Judaism. As a eunuch, he could never enter the inner courts of the temple. He would never be fully accepted as one of God’s “chosen people.” And now that he had heard this Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, he feared the same exclusion.
In baptizing the Ethiopian, Philip showed him that Jesus has removed all former distinctions between people. There is no “chosen people” anymore—except as people chosen by God’s grace in Christ! Any repentant sinner qualifies for that blessing! And through the water and the Word, the Holy Spirit used Philip the evangelist to add one more precious soul into the kingdom of heaven.
Our text describes an act of loving obedience that produced God’s desired fruit—a new Christian. Like Stephen, Philip had gone from “waiting tables” to become an effective evangelist. When called upon by the Holy Spirit to interrupt his work in Samaria, Philip left and traveled some 50 miles on foot to have contact with one person. That’s the value of one individual in God’s gracious outlook!
Which brings us to another evangelist…you! As I’ve already stated, we are all evangelists. The Lord has given us the privilege to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. Perhaps it is someone you have worked with for years and yet have never spoken to them about the Lord. Maybe it is a neighbor, someone with whom you have discussed flowers, crops, sporting events, children, or grandchildren, but never the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or perhaps your someone is in your own household—a spouse, a child, a grandchild, a parent, a brother or sister. It could be someone who has never heard the Gospel before or it could be someone who has heard the Gospel of hundreds of times. People who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ are all around.
The greatest good work that you can do, at least in terms of its benefits, is to tell someone of Jesus and His love. Every single Christian can thank someone, usually many people for speaking Christ to them. Our faith does not get poured into our hearts from some mystical, extraterrestrial source, but “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Someone talked to you about Christ—that’s how you were brought to faith.
In the Bible, speaking of Christ is not so much a required duty as it is an activity that Christians naturally do. Part of our new nature in Christ is to be an evangelist. If Christians do what their faith instinctively and powerfully motivates them to do, then more and more people will hear the Good News, come to faith, and inherit eternal life.
Unfortunately, many people have a lot of excuses for not sharing their faith. “I don’t know what to do.” “I don’t know what to say.” “I don’t know where to go.” “I don’t know whom to talk to.” Philip could have used those same excuses. But he simply rose and went where the Holy Spirit instructed him. And so can we!   We just need to get into the Word of God! It is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit makes Christians, not our dynamic personality or winsome ways. So it stands to reason that the better we know the teaching of Scripture ourselves, the more we practice confessing our faith with one another in worship and Bible study, the more comfortable and effective we will be in our evangelizing.
Have you ever wondered how the early church grew so quickly? Those Christians knew Scripture and were not afraid to share it with others. They would typically listen to the Scriptures read for about an hour, and then they would listen to a sermon that lasted an hour. They memorized large sections of Scripture. Now, I can see a few of you starting to squirm. No, I’m not saying we need to have a longer sermon or worship service, but I would suggest that if we studied the Word of God more and learned its basic teaching we would communicate it better.
As Lutherans, we also have a wonderful tool available to help us. It’s called the Small Catechism! The catechism covers the six chief parts of Christian doctrine. Most of you have studied the catechism in depth. The problem is that we don’t retain all the lessons we learned. Imagine what would happen if you spent ten minutes a day reading the Small Catechism aloud to yourself or to your family. It wouldn’t take very long and you would relearn the basics of the Christian faith. You would feel more confident in your confession of faith, and you would be better prepared to tell someone else the Good News about Jesus. At the same time, you’ll be evangelizing your family and yourself.
But evangelists don’t just talk about sharing the Good News… they share the Good News! And so I would like to finish by sharing this Good News with you: God loved you and a world of sinners so much that He sent His only-begotten Son. Jesus lived a perfect, obedient life in your place. Christ gave up His life on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for your sins. Jesus rose again from the dead on the third day, proving that His Word is true, and that all who believe in Him might have eternal life. Ascended into heaven, He is now seated at God’s right hand, where He intercedes for you, bringing your prayers to the heavenly Father, who promises to answer them for Jesus’ sake. Christ promises to return to raise the bodies of all the dead, and to give you and all believers in Him eternal life.
In the meantime, Jesus has not left you alone, but promises to be with you always, coming to you in His Word and Sacraments. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit creates faith and points you to Christ. In Holy Baptism, Christ washes away your sins and unites you with Him in His death and resurrection. In Holy Communion, Jesus feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through each of His means of grace, our Lord continues to evangelize you: You are forgiven of all of your sins

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...