Saturday, April 30, 2016

What's in a Name?

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“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So says Juliet Capulet to Romeo Montague in William Shakespeare’s lyrical tale of star-crossed lovers. Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called “Montague,” not the Montague name nor the Montague family. Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, renounces his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to “deny [his] father” and instead be “new baptized” as Juliet’s lover.
But that begs the question: Is a name simply an artificial and meaningless convention? Certainly, if you started calling roses “skunk blossoms,” they would be no less beautiful and smell just as fragrant. But when you start talking about personal names, then it starts getting personal! In the Old Testament, names were chosen carefully to reflect the character of the person or their relationship to God. Jacob was born “the cheater”; God later gave him the name Israel, “He strives with God.” Family names can carry a lot of weight or baggage. If you come from the Bush or Kennedy families, it’s just expected that you’ll one day seek political office. One current presidential candidate likes his name so much he has it put on almost everything he builds, buys, and sells. But how many people do you think kept the surname, Hitler, after Adolf departed from this world?
So, names can be important. But no name is more important than Jesus’ name. Jesus, the name given by the angel, which means “the Lord saves,” for “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). When called before the Council, St. Peter confesses, “Let it be known to all of you… that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified… this man is standing before you well…And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12).  
St. Paul tells us Jesus humbled Himself by dying on the cross. “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Philippians 2:8–11). No wonder Jesus is able to promise: “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).
John Kleinig tells a story from World War 1 that illustrates the power of Jesus’ name in our prayers:
Two unrelated British soldiers, who looked like identical twins, served together in the same unit with the same rank. They came from the opposite ends of society. One came from a good family, was married with a young son, and had a share in his family’s business. The other came from a broken family. The two soldiers became the best of friends. The young man with a good family spent much of his time telling the other about his wife and family. He even told his friend that if he was killed, his friend should take his name and to use it to impersonate him. That is exactly what happened. The man without any family and prospects in life swapped places with his friend who died. The soldier who impersonated his friend gained much more than a new name. He also received membership in a family with loving parents and siblings, a loving wife and son, part ownership of the family’s business, and the social status that went with it. All this became his at the death of his friend by his friend’s word and the gift of his name.[i]
Jesus has done something far greater than that by His incarnation and sacrificial death. He involves us in what Luther calls the great exchange. In His Baptism, Jesus takes on our sin and guilt, our death and damnation; in our Baptism, Jesus gives us His place with God the Father and His status as the only Son of the Father. He takes our sin and disobedience, and credits us with His righteousness and obedience. He gives all that He is and has to us. We get a new self and life from Him.
As part of our new identity, Jesus gives us His name and the privilege of praying to God the Father in His name. Jesus explains what He means by this in John 16:23-24, 26-28:
In that day you will ask nothing of Me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full… In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.
Here, Jesus is speaking to His disciples on Maundy Thursday. There are two things that Jesus does for His disciples this night before His death. For one, He gives them His Supper, the new testament of His very body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of their sins. Although they will not see Him face to face, He will still be with them to the end of the age in His Word and Sacrament. As we speak of often, this is how Jesus is present with His people even today. This is how He comes to us with forgiveness, life, and salvation—in His means of grace.
Here, in our text, Jesus reinforces another gift: the gift of prayer in His name. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” Until He returns in glory, this is how we converse with our Lord. He comes to us in Word and Sacraments. We go to Him in prayer.
Jesus speaks about two different ways of praying. There was the old way of praying in which people had no direct access to God the Father and His grace. Since the disciples had no access to the Father, they asked Jesus to put their requests to Him. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples will be able to pray in a new way that is symbolized at His death by the splitting of the curtain of the temple. Jesus says that after His resurrection, He won’t have to pray for them any longer. He won’t be a third party standing between His Father and the disciples because they will be so closely united with Him in faith that their prayers will be His prayers. Jesus’ disciples will use His name and faith in Him to approach the Father directly in prayer together with Jesus.
The most remarkable thing about this new way of praying is that it overcomes our fears about our performance and acceptability. God the Father hears our prayers as if they come from the mouth of Jesus; He is just as pleased with us and our prayers as He is with Jesus and His prayers. He listens to us as we are in Jesus, dressed up in Him and all His qualities. This means that we can now approach our heavenly Father as if we were Jesus Himself and claim all His blessings for ourselves. It also means that our heavenly Father regards and treats us just like His beloved Son. He loves us and hears us as He loves and hears His Son. We are, in fact, as inseparable from Jesus as the head is from the rest of the body. God the Father does not consider us as we are in ourselves, but only as we are in Jesus.
Luther explains what praying in the name of Jesus means:
I am justified in saying: “I know that my heavenly Father is heartily glad to hear all my prayers, inasmuch as I have Christ, this Savior, in my heart. Christ prayed for me, and for this reason my prayers are acceptable through His.” Accordingly, we must weave our praying into His. He is forever the Mediator for all men. Through Him we come to God. In Him we must incorporate and envelop all our prayers and all that we do. As St. Paul declares (Romans 13:14), we must put on Christ; and everything must be done in Him (1 Corinthians 10:31) if it is to be pleasing to God.
But all this is said to Christians for the purpose of giving them the boldness and the confidence to rely on this Man and to pray with complete assurance; for we hear that in this way He unites us with Himself, really puts us on a par with Him, and merges our praying into His and His into ours. Christians can glory in this great distinction. For if our prayers are included in His, then He says (Psalm 22:22): “I will tell of Thy name to My brethren” and (Romans 8:16–17) “It is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” What greater honor could be paid us than this, that our faith in Christ entitles us to be called His brethren and coheirs, that our prayer is to be like His, that there is really no difference except that our prayers must originate in Him and be spoken in His name if they are to be acceptable and if He is to bestow this inheritance and glory on us. Aside from this, He makes us equal to Himself in all things; His and our prayer must be one, just as His body is ours and His members are ours.[ii]
In keeping with this teaching of Jesus, we normally address our prayer to God the Father. We may, of course, also pray to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. But that’s not the normal way. We commonly conclude our prayers to the First Person of the Trinity by saying that we pray “through Jesus Christ” or “in the name of Jesus.” We thereby acknowledge that we pray together with Jesus who intercedes for us and leads us in our prayers. We use the name of Jesus and our faith in Him to approach the Father with a good conscience without fear of condemnation or rejection by Him.
This teaching makes us bold and confident in prayer for two reasons. We need not be anxious about whether God is pleased with us or whether He will give us a favorable hearing (1 John 3:21-22; 4:13-15). We need not worry about what to pray for, or how, because Jesus covers us with His righteousness and perfects our prayers. Our performance does not matter; what matters is Jesus and our faith in Him as our intercessor. What matters is His name, His Word, His promises!
What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to prayer. The power of prayer is not found within us; it is found in Jesus’ name, according to His Word and according to His holy will. To pray in Jesus’ name is to trust that the prayer will be answered because Christ has died for you. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray with Jesus. Even now, He prays for you until He comes again.
Therefore, dear friends, rejoice: you can be sure that the Lord hears your prayers for Jesus’ sake… because Jesus brings them to His heavenly Father on your behalf… because you are God’s beloved child… because Jesus died and rose for you. You have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

[i] Kleinig, John W. (2008). Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today. (p. 168-169). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
[ii] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s Works, vol. 24: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 24, p. 407). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

No More Tears

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“[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The victorious climax of the movie, The Passion of the Christ, is signified by a giant “tear” falling from heaven at the moment Jesus gives up His Spirit and dies. While that touch may be a bit too theatrical for some, its imagery is effective, especially as it begins a storm that roars fully into life. “All hell” breaks loose as sin, death, and the devil are defeated. That’s why we hear the anguished howl of Satan in the pit of hell. And at the same time, above ground, an earthquake rocks the temple, splitting the curtain and opening the Holy of Holies, all of which is now replaced by the sacrificed Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The chain reaction set in motion by one tear from God’s eye is certainly more a case of artistic expression than historical fact, but it give a picture of the depth of God’s sorrow at the death of His only begotten Son. It also begs the question: Does God ever cry? Has He ever really shed tears? Perhaps you’ve never thought about it, so think about it now! In your wildest imaginations, have you ever thought that God could or would cry? That the powerful God who made the entire universe would be capable of grief?
Yes, it’s true. In Genesis 6, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart.” While God spared Noah and his family, He was angry and hurt enough that if Mel Gibson were to do a movie about the flood he might show God shedding enough tears to flood and destroy the entire world.
But for today, we’re more interested in the fact that God, in the person of Jesus, really wept. The Gospels record two instances shortly before His Passion where the mighty Son of God actually cried. One of those times is recorded in the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” As He stood at the grave of His dear friend, Lazarus, and He saw Mary and Martha mourning the death of their brother, Jesus broke down and cried with His friends.
Why did Jesus cry when He knew He was going to bring His friend back to life in just a few minutes? Was it in sympathy for Martha and Mary, seeing them so sad in the agony of separation from their brother? Was it out of sorrow for Lazarus, whose illness and suffering had culminated in death? Was it in sympathy for Lazarus who would now have to return to the pains of life on earth? Or was it grief over the fact that sin has brought death to everyone since Adam and Eve?
 The second time the Gospels tell us Jesus wept is the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus had just begun to approach the city of Jerusalem in that remarkable Palm Sunday procession. His disciples and the crowds had cheered Him with the words, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”  
The Pharisees didn’t like that. They said, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.
Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” And then we read: “And when He drew near and saw the city, He wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:38–42).
Why do you think Jesus wept over Jerusalem? It could have been for many sins. But Jesus tells us the real reason for His tears: they were neglecting the things that belonged to their peace. They were neglecting and even opposing Him, the Prince of Peace. And that sin of unbelief, that lack of faith in Jesus Christ, is the greatest sin of all. As a result of God’s just judgment for her sin and unbelief, Jerusalem would be totally destroyed in 40 years. That’s why Jesus wept!
Is there anything in your life right now which would cause Jesus to weep?
Of course there is—and in mine, too. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all taken God’s grace for granted and followed our own sinful thoughts and desires. We’ve all failed to fear, love, and trust God above all things. We’ve all failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. We’ve all doubted God’s promises and neglected His holy Word. We’ve all given Jesus plenty of reason to weep by what we have done and left undone.
Jesus knows something about our frailties and tears. He experienced them Himself firsthand. The author of Hebrews points us to one particular instance where it drove Him to tears—our Lord’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion. “In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverence. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being designated by God as high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (5:7-10).
The author piles up words, giving us under the Spirit’s guidance even more details of Christ’s agony than recorded in the four Gospels. “Prayers,” expression of needs, become “supplications,” urgent requests, based upon the word used of beggars carrying an olive branch as a symbol of extreme needs. From Christ’s lips also come “loud cries,” literally, cries He wishes to stifle but which are wrung out of Him by extreme agony. From His eyes come tears as visible signs of His woe. The anguish and agony deepen till they lead to His sweat becoming “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Do you ever feel like you’re alone, left to hung out to dry? Here is one who, utterly alone,  has gone through more than you’ll ever know. Here is one who knows just how to help you.
To whom and for what does the Great High Priest pray in the Garden of Gethsemane? “To the one who was able to save Him from death.” As the darkness of the world’s sin wrapped around Him and the horror of the world’s damnation washed over Him, Jesus’ human nature shrank from the task. This was no refusal, but recoil. In perfect obedience He adds to His fervent praying the words recorded in Matthew 26:42, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me.”
Because He is completely attuned and perfectly submissive to His Father’s holy will, Jesus’ prayer is heard and answered. But the Father’s answer is not to remove His Son’s cross, rather to ready Him for it, even sending an angel from heaven to strengthen Him. Just think of the powerful miracle and profound mystery involved in all of this. Jesus who is God’s Son from all eternity takes on human form and suffers. He who as God’s Son perfectly obeys the Father from all eternity now learns the full cost of that obedience. He becomes “obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Having reached His goal, this Great High Priest becomes the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him. Now, we have another reason to weep—but this time our tears are tears of joy and thankfulness for our salvation.
Jesus wept! Never forget it! And we cry, too—from the moment we are born, through many of the scrapes and sadnesses and frustrations of living, down to the final agony of our death, we weep. Never be ashamed to cry! God made us able to cry. In fact, the ability to cry is a remnant of His holy image given to man a creation. Weeping can be a godly activity. Tears can be godly expressions of emotion, particularly when shed over sin and injustice. Often tears are the healthiest release and relief for our grief.
Remember that Jesus, too, cried when Lazarus died. Jesus came to this world to have experiences like ours in all things (but without sin)—and that includes weeping. He knows all about our tears of anguish and anger, of hurt and heaviness, of deprivation, desperation, and despair.
And those tears we cry mean much to Him! You may pour out your tears with your fears when you pray. In 2 Kings 20, godly King Hezekiah cried bitterly as he prayed for the healing of his disease and prolonged life. God saw those tears, healed him, and extended his life 15 years!
In Psalm 56:2, King David was complaining and praying, “My enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly.” And then he speaks some very strange-sounding words to the Lord (v 8): “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?
Let me explain what David means.
In ancient days sometimes a narrow-necked bottle called a “lachrymatory” was found in a tomb. It was believed that the tears of a deceased person’s friends were collected in such a bottle and placed in the grave with him as a memorial. It’s not easy to collect tears in a bottle. But David is asking God to gather up his tears one by one, record them in His book, and store them up in His bottle like good wine, since those tears are precious to Him. David knows that his loving God cares deeply about the things that are troubling him. He knows that God cares about every single tear that David sheds, and that He will do something about them.
David’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to this world to do something about our tears. He came to put those precious tears of ours into “His bottle,” as it were, and to be with us also when we weep, because He Himself knows what it means to weep. “Blessed are those who mourn,” says Jesus in the Beatitudes, “for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
All this Jesus has done for us. It took blood, sweat, and tears. When you contemplate the agony of our Lord’s Passion, it’s really a very emotional experience. Those of you have watched the movie, The Passion of the Christ, probably cried as few tears yourself as you watched. I know I certainly did, and as I watched people leave the theater afterward there weren’t too many dry eyes.
Yes, a deep reflection on Christ’s death and resurrection can make you cry. And then you begin to wonder: “All this He has done for me. What can I do for Him? Shall I weep for Him? Shall I feel sorry for Him and the pain and suffering He endured?” That’s what the weeping women of Jerusalem did while Jesus was on the way to the cross. But Jesus told them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28).
“Blessed are they who mourn,” Jesus said. But He’s not referring to those who mourn for Jesus and His suffering and death, but to those who mourn for their sins that He died for. I think of a verse from a hymn we often sing during Lent: 
But drops of grief cannot repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
‘Tis all that I can do. (LSB 437:5)
To be sure, as long as we live in this fallen world we will continue to weep from time to time. When we fail miserably at something, we may weep. When our feelings have been hurt, we may weep. When we think about the rough road ahead of us, we may weep. When a loved one dies, we most certainly will weep. But in all our weeping, Jesus is right there with us. He understands our pain. He is with us in our grief. He promises us healing and comfort that lasts for eternity.
In Baptism, your Old Adam is crucified with Christ, and your new man is raised in His resurrection. In the water and Word, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in you, your sins are washed away, and you are clothed with Christ’s righteousness. In His Supper, the Lord gives you the medicine of immortality, His very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. In each of these means of grace, Jesus gives you peace, comfort, and strength for the trials and tears of today, and a promise of much better things to come.  
Let’s hear again that promise from Revelation (21:1–4):
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
Go in peace! You are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Good Shepherd's Voice

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The days between the Old and New Testaments were dark and ever-changing in the land of Judea. The Babylonians who had destroyed Jerusalem had, in turn, been conquered by the Persians; and under the Persians, the Jews had been allowed back to rebuild Jerusalem. The Persian Empire had fallen to Alexander the Great. Alexander didn’t change a whole lot around Judea, but when he died, his kingdom was divided, and the Seleucids took over the area that included Judea.
One of Seleucid kings was Antiochus IV. Taking on the name Epiphanes, “the Enlightened,” Antiochus sought to “enlighten” the Jews. He looked at their religion of one God, of keeping His commands, and of waiting for the Messiah to come and decided it was holding them back, so he made its practice punishable by death. If a believer circumcised his child or rested on the Sabbath, he was to be scourged and flayed alive until death.  Antiochus destroyed the scrolls of the Law and transformed the temple into a place for pagan sacrifices and prostitutes.
In time, the family of the Maccabees rose up to challenge this blasphemy. Judas Maccabaeus led a makeshift army against the Seleucids and against all odds gradually defeated them. The temple was purified and the Lord’s altar restored in December 165 BC. The people celebrated this victory each year with the Feast of Dedication, also know, as the Feast of Lights, better known today as Hanukkah.
Having restored the freedom to worship the one true God, Judas was regarded by many as not just a hero, but perhaps even the Messiah sent by God to deliver His people. But alas, it was not so. No doubt he was a great man, but his messiahship was only temporary, as was the deliverance he brought. Eventually, he died in battle; and he did not rise again. And although he had freed Judea from the Seleucids, it was only a matter of time until the Romans took over.
As this week’s Gospel begins, it is the Feast of Dedication, and Jesus is walking in the temple courts. Jesus is well-known by now. His teaching and miracles are recounted again and again. Multitudes follow Him wherever He goes. Lots of eyes are on Him, because Judea is in need of another hero. Could Jesus be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for? He has potential—He can heal and even raise the dead. But He lacks the political zeal of a Judas Maccabaeus, and He shows no military aspirations. Is He the Messiah, or isn’t He?  
So they gather around Jesus and confront Him: “How long do you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
The implication is by no means that these Jews would believe if Jesus would say in so many words, “I am the Christ.” Nor is the idea they would use such a plain statement as a political charge on which to bring Jesus to trial. Still less may we assume that the Jews are seeking to ease their own consciences by casting the blame on Him for not speaking out plainly. They are long past such scruples. They mean to end it right here and now. If He says, “I am the Christ,” the stones will fly.
In order, once and for all, to settle the question Jesus points to that most convincing form of His telling, which is not merely by words but by deeds: “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name bear witness about Me.” Words alone, however valuable and necessary they may be, will not suffice. A fraudulent Christ might say, “I am the Christ.” We know that false christs did arise and so declare; but their works proved them liars. The works of Jesus substantiate every word of His concerning His people and His office as the Christ of God. Like witnesses who have seen and heard personally, these works coming from Jesus Himself speak truly of Him and His work of salvation.
Sadly, these Jews don’t really want to know the truth. They don’t want to believe. “You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you are not part of My flock. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Those who are not among God’s chosen flock turn deaf ears and blinded eyes to Jesus. Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. When they hear God’s Word, they understand who is speaking. They want to hear more. They don’t tire of listening. They know that His Word is living and gives life. Even more, Jesus knows them and they follow Him. “To know” in the Bible doesn’t mean simply to have knowledge about something; it means to have an intimate, personal relationship. That’s how the Good Shepherd recognizes His sheep and how they recognize Him. Therefore, they follow Him no matter what may come.
And because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the relationship is eternal. Jesus gives His sheep eternal life. They will not perish forever. No one will snatch them out of His hand. The Lord gives His life so they will be able to live. He gives it freely of His own will. His death is not a tragedy, not a victory for violence and injustice. He has the strength to overpower His enemies, but He chooses to give His life for them instead.
Jesus also has the “authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). This doesn’t mean it is easy for Him to die. He bears the world’s sin and is forsaken by God. Jesus gives His life in death as a propitiation for our sins. Therefore, His life—which conquers death—can be given to us sinners also. It’s for this reason that no one can take believers out of His hand. There is no sin that hasn’t been paid for with Jesus’ perfect life, suffering, and death!
What words of comfort for us! We are secure forever with Christ Jesus. Our security is locked up with the Father in heaven. What is true of the Son also is true of the Father. Jesus’ words are clear. He is the Son of God. He is God. He is the Christ. “I and the Father are one,” He concludes. It is not enough to gather from His words only that Jesus and the Father think alike or have a harmonious relationship. Jesus is speaking of being one essence with the Father, of being God.
And that’s exactly how the Jews understand Him. Our Gospel doesn’t bring this out to clearly because it ends too soon. In the following verses, we are told, “The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone Me?’ The Jews answered Him. ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’” (John 10:31-33, ESV).
The Messiah stands before them, but they refuse to believe in Him. The Shepherd calls them, but they don’t want to be His sheep. They don’t want to follow His voice. To them, Jesus is no good because He’s no conquering hero; He’s no Judas Maccabaeus. It’s true: He’s not. He’s far superior, as superior as God is to man. Judas fought and died, and the freedom he won was eventually lost. Jesus will suffer and die; but then He will rise again from the dead.
One of the things that we must acknowledge is that we confess a Savior who is far beyond imagination and intellect. We preach a Prince of Peace who surpasses all human understanding. We rejoice, therefore, to declare that the Son of God took on human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. We further declare that the holy and righteous Christ suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world. He rose again from the dead on the third day, lives and reigns to all eternity, and He continues to minister to us with all that we need for this life and eternal life. We believe this to be true because the Lord declares it true in His Word.
But not everyone will believe. A perfect God who becomes flesh is nice in the abstract; but in this world where nothing is flawless, it sounds too perfect. A God who is holy and demands obedience is logical; but the same God offering His Son as the sacrifice for the sins of the world just does not compute. The human mind wants a god that it can grasp and fully comprehend. A God who is greater than that is too unbelievable, too unpredictable, in our rational sort of age.
Now, let’s be clear. The problem is not that Jesus is too great to be believed in, too good to be true. People often act that way, but the problem does not lie with the Lord. The problem is sin. It’s that original sin that blinds us to God’s Word. It’s that Old Adam in us that has no intention of letting us believe in a God who is greater than we can grasp or control.
We must understand this when it comes to evangelism. Our God-given part in saving the lost is not to argue with people until they accept our logic, because logic doesn’t save. It is not to bully people into believing, because grace is a gift, not something forced. It is certainly not to dumb down the Word to make Jesus more attractive. No, our God-given part and privilege in saving the lost is faithfulness—faithfully preaching the Word and abiding by it. The Word of God is the voice of the Good Shepherd; when sheep hear His voice, they follow Him.
Let’s take a moment to warn of several dangers to faithfulness. One danger is to make Jesus “accessible.” Instead of teaching Him as the virgin-born Son of God, crucified and risen, portray Him as someone to whom people can understand and relate. Teach Him as only a defender of the poor and downtrodden, and make your church all about social justice and tolerance. Preach Him as only a moral leader and make your church all about being a better person. Preach Him as only a healer, and make your church about living a healthier life. Emphasize qualities of Jesus that people can understand, even without faith; and de-emphasize those attributes of Jesus that can only be believed by faith.
Many churches have adopted this tactic, and the pews may fill for a while. But here’s the thing: I’m thankful for godly therapists and social workers and moral leaders and healers, all of whom are God’s gifts to help us with this life. However, just like Judas Maccabaeus, therapists and social workers and moral leaders and healers are limited, sinful, and eventually die. If people “believe” in Jesus only as a help for this life, they have no hope for eternal life. Woe to the one who reduces Jesus into a sensible Savior, and thus fails to preach His salvation.
Another danger to evangelism is frustration. We preach the Word, and people don’t believe. You work up the courage to witness to someone, and they reject what you have to say. There must be something wrong with you, right? Well, maybe. There’s always the possibility that some sort of weakness on our part is obscuring the message. But often when people reject the Gospel, it’s not that we’ve done something wrong; it’s that they simply refuse to believe, no matter how clearly salvation in Christ is proclaimed. This happened in our Gospel when Jesus Himself proclaimed His Word, and so we should expect no better reaction.
As Christians, we are not responsible for the results; our part in evangelism is faithfulness. We are called to faithfully preserve the Word of God in its truth and purity, and faithfully proclaim that Word to all who will hear. For it is in this Word, that Jesus calls His sheep to follow and keeps them in His flock.
We must address one more thing in this sermon, lest I prove less than faithful. The Good Shepherd’s voice is not just comfort and salvation for people out there. He is your comfort and salvation, too. It is not my intention to neglect the sheep who are in the fold in order to reach out to those who are not yet. You need to hear the Gospel, too. Gathered here as the people of God, you are in need of His grace and presence, too.
The joyful truth that God has made you His own in Christ does not mean that you do not face all sorts of trial and difficulty. You may be plagued with guilt. You may be frustrated with where your life seems headed. You may face problems on the job. You may be sick. You may be dying. And with such troubles, you don’t need a Judas Maccabaeus to set you free for only a little while. You don’t need to hear of a moral example or a counselor or a crusader for social justice. You need a Savior who actually saves for eternity.
As we have the privilege of proclaiming Jesus Christ to others, so I proclaim Him to you. Jesus is your Good Shepherd, who has laid down His life on the cross to redeem you, and who has taken up His life again for you. He has suffered the guilt of your sin, and so He declares you forgiven. He preserves you despite the plots of others and the setbacks of living in a fallen world, for He has promised faithfully to deliver you to heaven. He has borne your infirmities to the cross so that He might deliver you from illness. And where no one else can deliver you from death, He declares to you, His sheep, “I give you eternal life, and you will never perish; neither shall anyone snatch you out of My hand. You are forgiven for all of your sins.”

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

Listening to the Shepherd's Voice

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“I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:14–16).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Are you good at recognizing voices? My first boss, Ralph Korn, was exceptionally good at it. Someone he hadn’t seen for twenty years or so could call him and he’d know immediately who it was. God certainly knew what he was doing when he gave Ralph that gift. Even as Ralph’s eyesight was failing as a result of multiple sclerosis, he would still recognize most everyone when they came into the feed store as soon as they said, “Hello.”
Since that time, I’ve discovered that recognizing voices is a skill that can be learned and practiced. The trick is to really focus on that voice and listen for distinguishing traits. The more you hear that voice and the closer you listen, the more distinct and recognizable that voice is to your ear.
In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. He has just healed the man born blind and they are seething at Jesus’ implication that they are spiritually blind; so blind, in fact, they are completely oblivious to their condition. Now, in essence, Jesus accuses them of spiritual deafness as well.
Jesus begins “truly, truly, I say to you,” a phrase He often uses to emphasize that He is about to teach a very important lesson. Then He paints a word picture to drive the point home. The image Jesus pictures is of sheep that are kept in a stone-walled, open-air pen. Only the shepherd has access through the one gate to the sheep. Anyone finding another way into the pen is up to no good. He is a robber and a thief.
The watchman protecting the gate opens it only for the shepherd. The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice as he calls each of them by name and leads them out. They follow because they know his voice. But they do not follow a stranger. They fear strangers and flee from them because they do not recognize their voice.
As Jesus speaks, we might expect His Jewish audience to understand at least some of His figurative language. Much of it is used throughout the Old Testament. The sheep are God’s chosen people. The strangers and thieves are those who would harm them. The shepherd is the Messiah sent by God to care for the flock. But the Pharisees don’t fully understand the implication of Jesus’ words. They aren’t ready to conclude that they themselves are among the strangers. Obviously, they don’t recognize Jesus’ voice as their Shepherd.
Seeing that they do not understand, Jesus patiently starts again with a more direct application. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” He emphasizes, “I am the door of the sheep.” Jesus is not only the shepherd and caretaker of the sheep, He is the only way to reach the sheep and the only way for the sheep to go for nourishment.
Many “strangers” came prior to Jesus, and many more come after, each trying to reach His sheep. But the false prophets and false christs do not come by the way of Jesus. They do not find Christ in the Scriptures and point Him out as the way of salvation. They are thieves and robbers who come to steal, kill, and destroy. But Jesus comes so that the sheep might have life to the full.
Jesus first addresses these words to the Pharisees, who regard themselves as the spiritual shepherds of God’s people. They are very serious and knowledgeable about their religion. They are deeply committed to living by God’s will—as they understand it. That’s important for us to remember. It’s very rare that a false teacher, one of the thieves and robbers, sets out to lead anyone astray. No one, or at least hardly anyone, intentionally decides to be a heretic. They have good intentions; but you know where good intentions lead.
Blinded to the truth by their own arrogance and self-righteousness, tone deaf to the Good Shepherd’s voice, the Pharisees are simply misled by the lies of Satan, the world, or their own sinful flesh. These men who claim to be spiritual leaders of God’s people hear from Jesus what it really means and what it takes to be His undershepherds. The only way to enter God’s flock is through the gate. And Jesus says that He is that gate. Only those who approach God and His people through Jesus will enter the safety of His flock. Others are dangerous intruders.
Jesus makes an astonishing claim: He is not just one gate among many gates—He is the Gate. He is not just one way among many ways that lead to eternal life—He is the only Way. He is not just one truth among many truths—He is the Truth. Jesus is not just a source of life—He is Life itself, Life to the full, Life in abundance. Jesus makes claims to uniqueness and exclusivity and sovereignty that offends many—even still today, perhaps especially in our day in which “tolerance” and “diversity” is touted as the primary virtue.
Many in every age, including our own, present themselves as God’s representatives and spokespersons, as leaders of His people. Here Jesus gives us a reliable gauge by which to evaluate them. True shepherds lead others to God and His flock through Jesus. They know and trust in Jesus as their Savior. And they invite and encourage others to find their way to God through Him. No one who ignores or denies Jesus can be trusted or followed.
There are a lot of other voices out there in the world today. Voices dangling the prospect of greener pastures in order to lead you away from the safety of the sheep pen, away from the relationships established by God and before God, even away from the Good Shepherd Himself. Voices who promise freedom, excitement, fulfillment, and happiness, but will ultimately lead to bondage, pain, and destruction for you, perhaps even to some of the innocent bystanders whom you love and who love and care about you.
So, how do you keep away from those voices? You keep listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Listen long enough and close enough to the Good Shepherd and you will know His voice whenever and wherever He calls. You will not be fooled by false prophets, you will flee every stranger’s voice, for you will know that it sounds not like the Good Shepherd who promises you full and abundant life, but rather a thief and robber who comes to steal and kill and destroy.
Throughout the years of my ministry, I have given the new students beginning catechism class a set of 380 flashcards with questions and answers drawn from Luther’s Small Catechism that we will use to study and review each week. I tell them they will be able to answer most of these questions if they just learn their memory work on the six chief parts of the catechism. I also tell them that at the end of their final year, I will narrow that set of questions and answers down to thirty that they must know in order to be confirmed.
Why do I do that? Well, it’s certainly not to make my job easier. It would be a lot easier to just go along with the flow of modern education that seems to dismiss any memory work of any sort rather than having to constantly keep encouraging the students (and their parents) to keep up with the memory work. And it’s not because I think that they need more to do. No, I think most of them are already overcommitted and overwhelmed. No, it’s because I don’t want those lambs entrusted to my care to go out into the world without being reasonably certain they are able to distinguish between the Good Shepherd’s voice and the other voices competing for their heart, mind, and soul.
As I’ve thought about it—I realized that growing in faith and knowledge of Christ is not just for the lambs; it’s for Christ’s sheep of all ages. So that all His sheep might recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. Toward that end, I’d like to share a few of the questions and answers that are most helpful as a firm foundation for distinguishing truth from error.
1) “What is the source of all Christian doctrine?” (The Bible).
There are voices who say that Christian doctrine is derived merely from human opinion, there is no absolute truth, but truth is relative or determined by the situation. Even some of the voices who say that doctrine is determined by the Bible insist it still must be subject to human reasoning for proper interpretation. Other voices say that doctrines can be declared by sacred tradition, the decrees of councils or popes. And still others rely on their own feelings to verify the truth.
Following the voice of our Good Shepherd, we teach that the Bible is the sole source of all Christian doctrine. When it comes to interpretation, Scripture interprets Scripture; that is, the more clear passages of the Bible are used in their proper context to clarify and help us understand the less clear passages.
2) “What is the difference between the Law and the Gospel?” (The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior.)
The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the only means for a correct understanding of Scripture. In fact, without this knowledge, Scripture is and remains a sealed book. Some of the competing voices misrepresent Christ as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and turn the Gospel into a doctrine of works. Other voices dispense the Gospel too cheaply, by failing to preach repentance, consciously overlooking sin, or dismissing the great price Christ paid for our redemption—His holy, precious blood, His innocent suffering and death.
This potential misunderstanding is solved when we reflect that there are in the Scriptures two entirely different doctrines—the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law shows us what we must do to be saved; the Gospel shows what God has done for our salvation through His Son Jesus Christ.
3) “Who is a worthy communicant?” (He or she that has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”)
In this day, few seem concerned about who is a worthy communicant. A church body like ours that still maintains the ancient practice of closed communion is labeled as narrow-minded, too strict, perhaps, even arrogant. But properly understood this teaching is seen to be most loving and caring for individual souls.
In 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, God sets out the standards for those who propose to attend Holy Communion. Briefly, God expects that the prospective participant knows what is involved in Holy Communion according to Scripture and that he or she examine himself or herself spiritually. God takes Holy Communion and the forgiveness of sins seriously. God indicates that unless a person honestly examines himself, he eats and drinks judgment upon himself. God will not tolerate anyone taking lightly or wrongly His Sacrament, even in ignorance.
When a Lutheran pastor declines to give Holy Communion to a person unknown to him, he is not acting as a judge of that person’s faith. Quite the contrary! The Lutheran pastor is deeply impressed by what Holy Communion is. It is his sincere desire that all receive it in faith and for their blessing. We do not exclude people from the sacrament, but require they first be instructed in what this sacrament is, what God offers here, and what God expects of us, so that we can be confident they are taking it for their benefit and not to their judgment.
4) “What has the Holy Spirit done to bring you to Christ?” (He has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.)
There are many voices telling you what you must do to be saved. Some point you to good works: do enough of them and they will outweigh your sins. Some try to turn your faith into a work. They tell you that yes, Jesus died for your sins, but you have to decide to accept Christ as your personal Savior. But those are only the voices of thieves and robbers. Don’t listen to them! God has given you a much better way—listen to the Good Shepherd and what He says in His Word.
The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to make sinners into saints. Through Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit creates saving faith and calls you to be a child of God. As you continue studying and hearing God’s Word, the Spirit enlightens you and helps you mature in faith. Living in your baptism through daily repentance you are sanctified, being made holy. In the Lord’s Supper, you receive forgiveness and your faith is strengthened. Though the progress is often imperceptible, the Holy Spirit works through these means to conform you to the image of Christ and bring you to eternal life in God’s kingdom.     
5) “Do you hope to be saved? Why?” (Yes, because Jesus lived a perfect life and died in my place for my sin.)
This is the most important question; it sums up all the other questions. There is only one way to heaven and Jesus is the gate. Whoever enters through Him will be saved. Jesus has come that you may have life, and have it to the full. You are saved only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the perfect life that you could not, and who died on the cross for your sins, and who rose victoriously from the grave. You are saved by the Good Shepherd. Listen to His voice, which reassures you again and again: You are forgiven of all of your sins.

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

Friday, April 8, 2016

Goin' Fish'n

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“Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3, ESV).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, serving a congregation in the land of 10,000 lakes: there are a lot of men, women, and children in this congregation who love to fish. From Elaine Rieck and Clarence Graphenteen down to Lucas Brockberg and Abbott Moeller, and a whole lot more of you in between, we have (pardon the pun) a boatload of avid fishermen and women. And each of them has stories to tell of successful fishing trips and “the big one that got away.” Elaine tells me about going down to the creek fishing for bullheads after milking cows. Lucas is proud to show off the walleye he caught ice fishing, and will tell you that you won’t catch anything with baby shad. Fishermen do what comes naturally. Fishermen love to tell their stories. And fishermen fish—every chance they get.
That’s what our text this morning is about. It’s about what fishermen do. Fishermen love to tell their stories. And fishermen fish—whenever they have a chance. And that’s what we find Jesus’ disciples doing. We’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first let’s put it all in the proper historical and textual context.
Last week in the Gospel the Easter story seemed to reach a perfect ending. Jesus appeared to His disciples—first without, then with, Thomas. He gave them the peace of forgiveness of all sins, the faith to believe it, and the power to forgive and retain sins in His name. They’ve now seen Jesus. They know He’s alive. Even Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as his God and Lord. And there’s been that wonderful word of Jesus to all future generations: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
In last week’s text, John even wrote what seemed to be the perfect ending for his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). Perfect conclusion, end of story.
But then, curiously enough, there’s one more chapter in John’s Gospel, our text for today. The disciples seem to be asking themselves, “What are we going to do now?” “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We’ll go with you.’ (John 21:3a).
Peter’s a fisherman. That’s what he does, or at least that’s what he had done all of his life until Jesus called him as a disciple a little over three years earlier. Along with his partners, Peter had fished in the Sea of Galilee. Now he and the other disciples have returned to the sea because of the risen Jesus’ command to the women (Matthew 28:10). They’re waiting for Jesus to appear as He promised. And since Peter and the other disciples don’t know what His next instructions for them will be, they do what comes naturally. Fishermen fish—every chance they get. I’ve heard fishermen say, “I’d rather fish than eat.” Besides, it’s against Peter’s nature just to sit. He always wants to be doing something.
You know what happens next. “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as the day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore, yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
“Jesus said to them, ‘[Guys], do you have any fish?’ 
“They answered, ‘No.’
“He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish” (John 21:3b-6).
This happened once before. Remember? Early in His ministry, the disciples had fished all night and got skunked. But Jesus worked a miracle, and they caught more than they could handle. Last time, though, Peter reacted very differently than he does this time. Here’s now: “That disciple whom Jesus loved (that’s John) said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off” (John 21:7-8).
Remember what Peter did the last time Jesus enabled the disciples to make a great catch? He said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). That was the natural reaction of a man who had not yet seen the cross, one who had not experienced Jesus’ forgiveness in the shadow of that cross. Without the forgiveness of the cross, we could never be in God’s presence. In fact, we wouldn’t want to be; for by nature, we’re enemies of God. Our sin could not exist in the presence of God’s holiness.
How different it is this time! Peter jumps into the water. He can’t wait to be near Jesus. This is the natural reaction of those who have believed in the cross and resurrection. See, by this time, Easter has happened. Believing in the crucified and risen Christ creates a completely new nature. Now inside is a person who knows he’s forgiven, loved by God. The new person inside knows he’s going to be with God forever in heaven—and he can’t wait to be with Him. And because he believes that, there’s this whole new nature that’s eager to do something for Christ.
So what’s he going to do? (Pause) What comes naturally. Do you recall the point of the story the last time Jesus enabled the disciples to catch all those fish? “From now on,” Jesus said, “you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). Literally, “you will become a fisher of men.” Do you suppose the disciples thought back to that this time? Do you suppose we’re supposed to think of it?
This is, it seems, why the Holy Spirit inspired John to add chapter 21 to his Gospel, why he records this particular miracle. It’s not just another resurrection appearance of Jesus. It’s an intentional reminder of what naturally follows after people have seen the risen Christ, believed in Him, and have been empowered by Him to forgive sins and share His message of love and life.
And notice how John is doing it. Not by an imperative, a command: “You go do this!” But just by a subtle, yet revealing, story of a fishing trip. John knows we want to go and be fishers of men. We want to tell the story of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, with our old sinful nature drowned and our new Christ-like nature raised to life, it’s what we naturally want to do. Christians just have this natural desire to make new Christians. We have tasted the joy of Easter. We have seen that our sins are forgiven. We have the certainty of eternal life. And now we just naturally want everybody in the world to have these same things.
Now it’s against our new nature to sit and do nothing. When we do nothing—and we often do nothing—we’re listening to the old sinful nature that remains inside us. But the new man or woman in us can’t wait to share. Fishermen fish. Christians want to make new Christians…don’t we?
Now, of course, it’s not as if Christian men and Christian women, Christian boys and Christian girls, necessarily sit down and decide just how many new Christians they want to make or when they want to do it. It’s not necessarily something they plan. Just whatever God has in mind.
Jesus is the one who plans and makes all this happen. The best-laid plans of men are meaningless. Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” but all night they catch nothing. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Without Jesus, all our fishing for men is just as fruitless. But then Jesus says, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” and things go very well. Jesus is the one who catches fish.
In fact, Jesus does everything. “When [the disciples] got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread” (John 21:9). “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’” (John 21:12). “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish” (John 21:13). Jesus feeds and equips us to do what the believer in us naturally wants to do.
And with Jesus providing the power, fishermen catch fish, new Christians get made: “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn” (John 21:11). That’s a lot of fish—but maybe there’s more to it than that. From the earliest years after John’s Gospel was written, commentators have wondered why the Holy Spirit inspired John to record the exact number of fish. Greek zoologists of the first century believed that there were 153 kinds of fish in the seas.
Could it be that John is reminding us that we are to go out in the world with the saving Gospel to bring all nations into God’s net? Could it be that John wants us to remember that God’s wants everyone to be a part of that great multitude pictured in Revelation 7: that no one could number from every nation, tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne, wearing the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, waving palm branches in victory, praising and giving glory to God? Could it be the fact that the net wasn’t torn is perhaps a reminder that none of those God has chosen for salvation will get away. None will be missed.
Whatever the reason for these details, it’s clear that the disciples didn’t plan to catch exactly 153 fish. (Remember: they couldn’t even catch one fish on their own!) And as fishers of men, planning how many “fish” we’re going to catch isn’t something we need to worry about either. We just go about our business—fishing because we’re fishers of men, sharing Christ just because we’re Christians, people who ourselves are loved, forgiven, going to heaven—doing what come naturally. We’ll leave the results in the hands of the Lord.
Every Christian does this naturally. New Christians aren’t made by brilliant ingenuity and slick evangelism programs. New Christians aren’t made by how well the pastor entertains us or how much the songs stir our emotions. No, new Christians just naturally happen as we seize the opportunities that God presents to us to share the story of Jesus and His love.
We have friends and neighbors who come and tell us they’re hurting with whom we can share the good news of Easter. We can testify to Christ by the way we just naturally go about life, being nurses and store clerks, students and electricians, kids, moms, and dads, farmers and retirees. We may not consider ourselves fishers of men, but as Christians we all are—naturally.
As a pastor I get lots of chances to tell people about Jesus. But the four cases where I actually know God let me have a hand in making new Christians, were the easiest, the most natural: when Aimee and I brought Jessi and Katie and Logan and Marissa to be baptized. We did essentially nothing, I wasn’t even a pastor yet, so I didn’t even do the baptizing; but through the water and His Word, Jesus made four new believers. And as they continued in that Word, they’ve grown in their faith and have shared it with their friends and acquaintances as well. And now they have their own children to be baptized and tell the story of Jesus and His love. See, for all of us who’ve experienced and believed in Easter, making new Christians comes quite naturally. Jesus does all the work, even as you go about your daily vocations.
So, by God’s grace, may you use the opportunities God places in your path to share the wonderful story of Jesus and His love. May you all be fishers of men, willing to cast out Christ’s Gospel net into the mission field here and abroad, with your own personal confession of faith, with your prayers and financial support to pastors and missionaries. May you all be doing what come naturally—living in the grace of God, knowing that 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.

Into the Wilderness

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