Friday, June 23, 2017

The Lord Has Prevailed

"Weeping of Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall
“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed” (Jeremiah 20:7).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ!
The direction of our text is from complaint (vv. 7-10) to praise (vv. 11-13). But context is crucial. In the verses immediately following this text, Jeremiah returns to bitter complaint, even cursing the day of his birth. So, what’s up with Jeremiah? Is he unstable? Flighty? Moody? No, his story just reflects the ebb and flow of Christian experience. Our relationship with God does not always proceed in a straight line, from weak to strong. Often it vacillates, becoming under God’s grace ever stronger, but seldom becoming so in a smooth, unbroken, upward path.
The verses before our text clearly show that Jeremiah had cause for complaint (at least, humanly speaking). The LORD called Jeremiah to proclaim God’s judgment against His people. He was to take witnesses, some of the elders and some of the priests, to the Potsherd Gate, also known as the Dung Gate, the entrance to the town dump where they deposited all the broken pottery and animal waste. This gate stood at the southeast corner of the main wall of the city where two valleys, Hinnom and Kidron, met, a place called Topheth.
Holding out a clay jar in his hand, Jeremiah condemned his countrymen for adopting the religion and ritual practices of their Canaanite neighbors. Both women and men offered themselves as sacred prostitutes in the name of the gods. Even more abhorrent was their practice of human sacrifice. To gain the favor of the gods Baal and Moloch, they offered their own young children, throwing them into the fire. So they filled Topheth and the Valley of Hinnom with the shame of their idolatry and the blood of their own innocent children.
 At the LORD’s command, Jeremiah broke the jar, a vivid image of God’s impending judgment. The LORD would send their enemies upon them, and utterly smash the nation and bring their abominable practices to an end, making Topheth unfit for any kind of worship. Hunger would be so fierce in Jerusalem, they would eat the flesh of their own children. The slaughter would be so great, there would be no one to bury them. As their corpses lay upon the blood-soaked earth, the birds and beasts of the field, the scavengers, would pick their bones clean.
Jeremiah then returned to the temple court and repeated his stern message for a wider audience. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, behold, I am bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their neck, refusing to hear my words” (Jeremiah 19:15).
We have a good example of this stubborn rejection of God’s Word in Pashur, the chief officer of the temple. Using his police and judicial authority, he had Jeremiah put in stocks at the Sheep Gate, the gate through which the sheep and goats were brought in for sacrifice at the temple. It was heavily used, and we can only imagine the glee of Jeremiah’s enemies and their contempt at the public humiliation of their hapless victim.
The next day, thinking he had made his point, Pashur released Jeremiah from the stocks. But if Pashur thought he had silenced Jeremiah, he was greatly mistaken. Jeremiah continued to proclaim God’s Word. Jeremiah gave Pashur a new name, “Terror on Every Side,” for that is what he would experience. He would have to watch as Jerusalem was laid to waste. The temple he guarded would be stripped of its wealth, desecrated, and torched. With his own eyes Pashur would witness the death of many near and dear to him, but he would not be so fortunate as to die. He would be taken as a slave to Babylon, where he would live in shame until death took him. All of this because they would not listen to the LORD’s words.
You can imagine that Jeremiah’s message was a difficult one for him to preach. None of us like rejection. None of us like to be the bearer of bad news. But what really grieved Jeremiah was the astounding impenitence of his listeners, the people of Judah. His grief welled up out of a profound love for lost souls.
In the end his grief was too much for him to deal with. Not knowing what else to say, the prophet lashed out at the LORD. “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.” The word translated as “deceived” is probably better translated as “persuaded” as the NKJV does in this verse (7) and in verse 10, where it is used of Jeremiah’s enemies who hope to persuade the prophet for their own advantage.
Jeremiah did not become a prophet of his own will; he had to be prevailed upon to assume an obligation that brought him nothing but anguish and pain. Jeremiah complained that despite all his preaching and proclamation, not one word had been fulfilled. Consequently, he faced insults and taunts day after day. He tried to stop preaching, but he could not. The living Word within overpowered him and compelled him. He felt as Paul later would feel: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!... I am simply discharging the trust committed to me” (1 Corinthians 9:16, 17).
Continuing in his struggle, the prophet grasped at the promises God had made to him. Even his friends were waiting to snare him in his words. His every word was under the closest scrutiny. One slip and they would be all over him. It happens so easily and swiftly. Those once your closest friends can become the harshest critics and the bitterest enemies. But deep down Jeremiah knew he was not alone. The LORD was his ever-present help and stay. God would not allow Jeremiah to be overcome. He would quickly come to help. Momentarily, the prophet’s spirit lifted. He knew he was right with the LORD. A hymn of praise sprang to his lips as he exulted in the rescue the LORD would bring him.
God’s deliverance of Jeremiah is the obvious Gospel in this text. But what is unique about this text is the tenacity of God’s hold on Jeremiah—and us. God simply will not let us go, even when we foolishly try to loosen His grip on us. He will let nothing separate us from His love. Look at how Jeremiah tried to shake God off in verse 9: “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name.’” But what happens? “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” God hangs on, insisting on delivering the good news of His mercy to Jeremiah and through Jeremiah. God pursues us with His goodness relentlessly—and thank goodness, He overtakes and overpowers us. “You are stronger than I, and you have prevailed,” we say along with Jeremiah.  
And so, we stand here at the gate. Next to the junkyard of a post-Christian civilization. Next to the dung heap of modern society. The pantheon of gods that seduce us—sex, silver, and self—devour similar sacrifices demanded by Baal and Moloch—purity, decency, identity as men and women, and the lives of our children. Amid such sin and idolatry, do we speak? Do we speak God’s judgment? Do we call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? Or do we sit quietly on the sidelines to not ruffle too many feathers?
If we do speak, we can expect to meet opposition. Those preaching tolerance are often quite intolerant of other opinions. Those pushing the LGBT agenda can get nasty if you don’t bow to the gods of political correctness. Abortion is almost considered a sacrament by many who claim to support women’s rights. If you seek to promote the sanctity of human life or traditional marriage, they’ll hit you with everything they’ve got. Calling sin “sin” can be considered a hate crime. Like Jeremiah’s opponents, ours can be rather fierce. They’ll mock. They’ll lie. They’ll take you to court. And, increasingly, they are willing to use the threat of violence to keep us in line.  
Nevertheless, we are compelled to speak the truth in love. Not to beat them into submission. Not to get them to conform to our way of thinking. We are compelled to speak for a much higher reason: Those who oppose us are also sinners for whom Jesus shed His blood, too. They need to hear the Gospel, too. They, like we, need to hear of the love and forgiveness of Jesus. In frustration, Jeremiah called for vengeance upon his opponents. We are called to pray for ours.
More than Jeremiah, certainly more than you or me, Jesus knows what it’s like to face opposition. Jesus willingly gave Himself into the hands of those who led Him mercilessly, bound hard and cruel, from one unjust judge to another. He was falsely accused and condemned, spit upon, scoffed at, and struck in the face with fists. For the sake of our misdeeds, He was hit, whipped, crowned with thorns, and treated wretchedly—like a worm and not a man. For the sake of our sin He was counted a sinner and hung up between two evildoers as a curse. He was pierced in hands and feet with nails, and in His highest thirst He was given vinegar and gall to drink. Finally, in great pain, He gave up His spirit so that He could pay our debt and we could be healed by His wounds.
For this and all His other suffering and pain, we give Him thanks and praise. We pray that God would not let His holy, bitter suffering and death be lost on us, but that at all times this might be our comfort, and that we may boast in it; and that as we ponder it, all evil desires in us may be snuffed out and subdued, and all virtue may be implanted and increased, so that we, having died to sin, may live in righteousness, following the example He has left us, walking in His footsteps, enduring evil with patience, and suffering injustice with a good conscience.
Go in peace. The LORD has prevailed. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Justified by His Blood... Reconciled by His Death... Saved by His Life

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” (Romans 5:9–10).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In our Old Testament lesson, God tells Moses to remind the people of Israel how He had delivered them out of Egypt. Now, if they would only obey God fully and keep His covenant, then out of all the nations on the earth, they would be His treasured possession, His special people.
“What a deal!” we might think. “Just obey God’s commandments and keep His covenant and then it’s life on easy street!” Apparently, the people of Israel thought the same. They quickly responded, “All that the Lord has said we will do.” Of course, that was a serious overestimation of their abilities. The First Commandment had barely been etched in stone and the Israelites were holding a drunken orgy in honor of their brand new golden calf.
But we dare not cast the first stone. We, no doubt, would not fare much better. St. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Solomon affirms this in Ecclesiastes: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (7:20). Our Epistle affirms—we were born sinners, enemies of God.
But in that same text, God tells us a very surprising thing: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). As we examine ourselves closer, we discover that you and I are the ungodly person God wants to justify, reconcile, and save!
How does He do this? God accomplishes your justification by covering you with the blood of His Son, Jesus! You are “justified by His blood” (Romans 5:9). As illogical and unreasonable as this may sound, in His grace and mercy, God declares Jesus the sinner, and declares you holy and pure in His sight! Amazing! God has His sinless Son trade places with you!
God’s plan to save you from sin and the eternal damnation you have brought upon yourself is called justification. Today, we will look at this doctrine more closely. As we begin, we must state one thing up front: God has only one teaching and correct understanding of His saving act of justification. God wants you not only to rejoice in your relationship with Him, He also wants you to understand clearly the new relationship He has established with you in Jesus Christ.
This is necessary because, as the Encyclopedia of Catholicism recently and correctly stated: “justification remains a fundamental theological issue and is still the central issue underlying the difference in Christian churches.”[i] I found this out firsthand a few weeks ago when I posted a meme on Facebook about being justified by grace through faith without any of our works. One of my Roman friends disagreed with me, and told me that I was teaching heresy. I guess St. Paul was a heretic, too (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
To clearly understand what God means when He uses the word “justify,” it is important to note that at its root, being justified means being declared free from guilt—instantly, totally, and completely—by a judge. This basic and correct understanding of justification did not originate with St. Paul. It was taken from the Old Testament. Over time, man distorted God’s clear teaching. No longer was God’s justification seen as similar to the judicial action of a judge that immediately and fully frees a person. Instead, it began to be taught that a judge would free the prisoner, but only conditionally, thereby causing the person to have to earn his freedom through an exemplary life, a sort of parole or lifelong probation.
This changed God’s doctrine of justification from an instant judicial act to a long, drawn-out process. For example, the Pocket Catholic Dictionary, defines justification as “The process of a sinner becoming justified and made right with God” (emphasis mine).[ii] The Encyclopedia of Catholicism says: “The Council of Trent held that justification is not simply a judicial declaration.” [iii] Thus, in Roman Catholic theology, justification is not immediate but is a lengthy process, the completion of which depends on the life lived by the sinner.
Unfortunately, many Protestants seem confused about justification as well. While they insist that they believe justification before God is instant and complete; their day-to-day practice and teaching of the faith often denies what they profess. Instead of looking only to Christ for the certainty that they are completely justified before God, they often seek confirmation of their justification before God by constantly evaluating the holiness of the life they are trying to live. They mistakenly look inward to their own life rather than outward to the cross of Christ.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. Too frequently, we also look to ourselves and our own lives rather than what God has declared to be ours because of Christ. But instead of looking inside yourself to be assured of God’s justification, look outside of yourself. Look to the certainty of being declared righteous before God because of Christ. Look to the One who died for us while we were still sinners, while we were still enemies, while we were powerless!
In discussing the difference in the way churches today teach God’s doctrine of justification, one might ask: Are we being too picky? Is this unnecessary “splitting hairs”? Absolutely not! Imagine you are a prisoner standing before a judge. Would you find comfort in the judge’s announcement that he’s freeing you conditionally, by means of a long, uncertain process, in which your freedom would depend upon your living a perfect life? Or, would you find comfort in the judge’s announcement that you are free immediately and completely, no questions asked?
The answer is clear. Any prisoner would obviously find comfort and assurance in total, complete, immediate freedom! Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther carefully examined God’s Word, to his great comfort and joy he discovered (perhaps, we could say “rediscovered”) that God’s justification is instant, decisive, and complete, based entirely on the merits of the forgiveness Jesus earned when He died on the cross (Romans 4:25).
How you understand God’s doctrine of justification is crucial for you. It is the central message of the Bible. It is the key to understanding all of Scripture. It is also the key for godly living! St. Paul writes, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).
Perhaps this example would help to illustrate this truth. Every year U.S. doctors perform over forty million operations. Much of this surgery is done to restore torn skin, muscles, or ligaments. Most of these surgical repairs are successful; some are not. Some are initially successful, but then regress and the repaired tissue dies, no longer a living, dependable part of the body.
Similarly, God has performed spiritual surgery on us by creating justifying faith in us. God justifies us through His Word and through the cleansing and healing power of the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, God does the mending or justifying, by grafting and binding us back into Himself. In Christ, God “reconciles us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Now comes the challenge. After a surgeon has reconciled, or brought together, two body parts, this physical wound needs to be sustained constantly through the cleansing and healing blood of the body. Without blood flow to the wound, it will not heal and the tissue will die. The body must send new blood vessels into the newly reconciled area to assure that the newly reconciled parts will remain healthy, strong, and alive.
In the same way, our spiritual wound (being torn from God by our sin) is mended through God’s justification for us in Christ. For there to be sustained and healthy healing, God desires that His Son’s blood constantly flow through us. Unfortunately, too many Christians are unaware that after God justifies and heals us, He desires the cleansing and life-giving blood of Christ to circulate in the new bond between us and God, maintaining our justification.
Back in 1888, the Rev. Charles Porterfield Krauth wrote:
The current view of unLutheran Protestantism practically is, that all we need for our redemption is a dead Christ. We are to look back to Calvary to find peace in thinking of what was there done, and at the Lord’s Supper we look back to the sacrifice once made for our sins. To the theology of a large part of the Church… we have a religion of sentiment verging away into sentimentality; a religion which lives by its own thoughts about a Savior of bygone times.[iv]
In other words, most of Protestantism sees no need for a close and living connection between justification and Christ’s blood in His Holy Supper.
But we have a completely different view based on Romans 5:10: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life!” As Dr. Krauth points out:
If Christ must die to make our redemption, He must live to apply it. If the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the redemption made by His death, it is also a sacrament of the same redemption applied by His life. If it tells us that His body and blood were necessary to make our redemption, then it tells us also that they are still necessary to apply the redemption they then made. He made the sacrifice once for all—He applies it constantly.[v]
Unfortunately, many deny the real presence of Christ’s true body and blood and see no real living connection between God’s Word of justification and His Sacrament of Holy Communion. However, just as God’s spoken Word justifies, so also does His living Word in Holy Communion keep God’s reconciliation healthy and alive in us. God’s teaching of justification is brought fully into the life of the reconciled sinner when the sinner also actually receives Jesus’ own cleansing, healing, and life-giving body and blood.
You have been justified, declared righteous by Jesus’ blood, once for all time. Reconciled to God by the death of His Son, you are kept saved by His life, sustained by His life-giving Word and Sacraments. You have been set free to live in His love and serve your neighbor. Do so with joy, knowing that your love and service are not done to bring you closer to God, nor will your failure to love and serve perfectly take you away from God; they can’t. For Jesus’ sake, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are already yours. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] McBrien, Richard P. (1995) The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (p. 727). New York, NY: HarperCollins
[ii] Hardon, John. (1985) Pocket Catholic Dictionary: Abridged Edition of Modern Catholic Dictionary  (p. 214). New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group
[iii] McBrien, Richard P. (1995) The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (p. 727). New York, NY: HarperCollins
[iv] Krauth, Charles Porterfield. (2007) The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (p. 652-653). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
[v] Krauth, Charles Porterfield. (2007) The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (p. 653). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

As You Go...

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus had taught His disciples by word and deed over the course of 3+ years. Shortly before His ascension our Lord promised that He would continue His ministry on earth through His disciples. In our text for today, Jesus instructs them on the way in which He will continue to make more disciples through them.
This passage is used for Holy Trinity Sunday because the baptismal words—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—are explicitly trinitarian. The teaching to convey everything Jesus instructed is trinitarian, too, because Jesus spoke the words given Him by the Father, and the Holy Spirit works through those words to give faith, forgiveness, and eternal life.
Christ makes disciples through His disciples—through the baptizing done in the triune name and the teaching of Christ’s Word by those who minister in His name. That ongoing ministry brings the promise of Christ’s continuing presence with His followers through the means of grace until the end of the age. That is the mission given by Christ to His disciples, and passed onto us, His current disciples.
What first comes to your mind when you think of mission? For some it may be the old television series or motion picture franchise, Mission Impossible. For others, the word may suggest a military action. Still others may think of overseas missionary work. But how many of you thought of your own neighborhood or community, right here in Trosky/Jasper/Pipestone?
It has been said that every Christian knows at least seven or eight people who have never been baptized or taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I suspect that number is probably much higher. So, wouldn’t it make sense that we start with those people we already know?
In His Great Commission, the Lord said to His followers: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
If we translated the Greek verb tenses more literally, the passage might begin as follows: Going, therefore, disciple the nations… The verb most English Bibles translate “go,” is not written in the imperative mood. It’s not a direct command. The sense of our Lord’s words might better be rendered, “As you go…” or “While you are on your way…”
Jesus’ final words of instruction are often taken as a command, but in reality, they are something much more—a commission. A commission is an authorization to perform certain duties or tasks. The Great Commission is not so much a command or order as it is an honor and privilege and calling of being a follower of Jesus that carries with it Christ’s authority. That authority gives us the right, the duty, and the power to make disciples for Christ. What an awesome promise!
As I think about the words of Jesus’ Great Commission, I am reminded of the M.A.S.H. units that began during the time of the Korean War, made famous by the movie and television series of the same name. M.A.S.H. stood for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. M.A.S.H. units originated because too many wounded were being lost between the front lines and the hospital. So, the army took the hospital as close to the front lines as possible. Victims were treated, stabilized, and sent to hospitals down the line for follow-up.
The key word in M.A.S.H. was mobile, “able to move or be moved easily.” Jesus commissioned His Church to “go therefore and make disciples.” Wherever there are people who have not been baptized and people who need to be taught about Christ, that is the place where we are to go. In Acts 1:8, Jesus instructed His apostles to be His witnesses beginning where they were—in Jerusalem, Judea, and continuing to the ends of the earth. Our commission is the same.
A good place to start making disciples is in our own home, our own congregation, baptizing and teaching our own children. But there are many other people almost as close. Demographic studies show that over 50% of the residents of Pipestone and Rock counties are classified as unchurched. Sad to say, we even have a few of them on our own membership rolls that fit that definition. Likely, you have members of your own family that fall into that category. The mission field is not over there, but it is right here in our own backyard. And we have been given the honor and privilege of reaching out to them with Christ’s love.
You may be asking yourself where you fit in this Great Commission. After all, you’re not an apostle. You’re not a pastor, so you shouldn’t baptize except in emergencies. You’re not called to preach or administer the Lord’s Supper. But you are part of the Church, the body of Christ, to which this Great Commission has been given. As one of Christ’s disciples, you have been given the authority to make more disciples.
Perhaps you don’t believe you have “the gift of evangelism.” Perhaps you feel inadequately prepared for such a great work. You don’t know where to begin. God provides an answer to your concern. He does that through His Church.
In the M.A.S.H. unit, the hospital was taken to the wounded. When the wounded could not make it to the hospital, the hospital came to them. In that way, many more lives were saved. Many wounded were able to receive treatment that prevented greater permanent injury.
The Church has often been called “a hospital for sinners.” We, who enter here, rejoice when our sins are forgiven in the name of our compassionate Lord. We rejoice when other fellow sinners are baptized into Christ in the triune name for the forgiveness of their sins. We rejoice when we are taught the good news that Jesus Christ died and rose for us all. We rejoice when we partake of our Lord’s body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
This hospital for sinners is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone is welcome to come in for healing and comfort. But how can they come in if they have not heard the invitation? How can they come in if they are too wounded to make it on their own power? While pastors are called to baptize and teach, they can’t make it to everybody’s home, or school, or place of work themselves. Just like hospitals need medics to bring in the physically sick and injured, the Church needs medics to bring in the spiritually sick and injured.
That’s where you come in! All Christians can and should reach out in love to the lost. In this way, we follow the Great Command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As you go about your daily lives, you have the opportunities that I or any other pastor may never have. You can bring them into the hospital for sinners. You can help make disciples. You can love your neighbor. Who is your neighbor? Our neighbor is anyone who is in need of the help that we can offer.
I once asked someone why he had come to our church for help. His response struck at the heart of what it means for the Church to show Christ to the world. He said, “The Church is supposed to help when no one else will. The Church is supposed to love.” Does that describe this congregation?
Learning to love one’s neighbor begins at the cross, where we see Christ our Lord, who gave Himself completely for us. His love is purposeful and intentional. Likewise, our love for someone else is intentional and purposeful. Empowered by Christ, we will add action to our words.
We ask the Lord to show us needy neighbors around us. There are plenty of people in need of spiritual support, care, and healing. Then, strengthened by our Lord’s promise that He is with us, we love and proclaim God’s Good News.
 What is this Good News? God the Father so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world. Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary—fully God and fully man. Having lived a perfect sinless life, Jesus died on the cross as payment for the sins of the world. Three days later, He rose from the dead. Ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus lives and reigns over all creation, yet still comes to us in His means of grace, where His Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
So we rejoice this day in the Holy Trinity, and we gratefully acknowledge that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are still at work to make disciples through Baptism and Word of God. We confess those times when we are tempted to elbow the Trinity aside and trust in our own efforts instead. We give thanks that the Lord has made us His through our Baptism, and that He continues to strengthen us by His Word and Supper. If we are criticized for being a bit old-fashioned, we respond with a cheerful, “Thank you! By the grace of God, we do indeed try to stay true to our Lord’s command to make disciples His Way.”
This, dear friends, is your cause for rejoicing: The all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have made you Their disciple. They have washed away your sins and declare your salvation. The works of man cannot save you, but the work of the Holy Trinity can; and this is why I rejoice to announce to you this work of the Holy Trinity: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

In the Last Days

"Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles" by Mikhail Vrubel
Click here to listen to this sermon.

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We are living in the last days and the end of the world is drawing near. I don’t say this because of anything in the news today. I don’t say this because I have some sort of inside source. I say this because of our reading from Acts 2, the account of the first Christian Pentecost. Pentecost was one of the three great festivals that God had established for Israel. Also known as the Feast of Harvest, it followed the completion of the barley harvest, and was a kind of firstfruits thanksgiving for the early wheat harvest. Every pious Jew tried to be in Jerusalem for this feast, which was observed each year 50 days after Passover.
But God had special events in mind for this Pentecost in 33 A.D. About 120 of Jesus’ disciples gathered together for prayer and worship. Suddenly, a sound like “the blowing of a violent wind” filled the whole room. As the disciples looked about, they saw above their heads what appeared to be tongues of fire. This was the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prediction: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16) and Jesus’ promise before His ascension: “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).
The tongues of fire came to rest on each person present. Everyone received the baptism of the Spirit, for each would have work to do in carrying out the Great Commission. Certainly, these disciples already possessed the Holy Spirit. Every believer’s faith is worked by the Spirit, who then dwells in the heart. In fact, the apostles themselves had received the Spirit directly from Jesus when He breathed on them after His resurrection (John 20:22-23). But now the Spirit would give special, new gifts to equip them for the work ahead.
For this occasion, the most apparent gift was the ability of the believers to speak in foreign languages they had never learned. This gift would help them to begin carrying out the assignment that the Lord had given to His church—to make disciples of all nations. For not coincidentally, a crowd quickly gathered that came from “every nation under heaven.”
Amazed and perplexed, some of them asked: “What does this mean?” Others mistook the speaking of many languages for drunken babbling. But that charge was easily dismissed. At this hour of the morning, even those who might be given to wine would more likely be sleeping off the previous night’s excesses.
Peter seized the moment. These amazing phenomena, he said, are the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, for God was now pouring out His Spirit on all people. Some eight centuries earlier, God had promised that in the last days all people, male and female, old and young, would receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Everyone would be equipped to proclaim God’s message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to others after receiving His revelation.
We live in the last days. They began on that day of Pentecost.
 Perhaps you’re wondering: Are you sure we are living in the last days? Where is the Holy Spirit? We can’t see Him. How do we know He is really here? The sanctuary is not filled with the sound of a loud, rushing wind. Nor are there tongues of fire dancing on the top of the heads of anyone. We are not speaking in languages we have not learned. In fact, no one really looks all that excited.
Those things haven’t happened since that day nearly 2,000 years ago. And it’s not a big mystery why. When something big happens in the Lord’s plan of salvation, He kicks it off with something special. At the crucifixion, there was darkness, earthquake, and a torn temple curtain. At the resurrection, saints were raised from the dead and testified. At the first Pentecost, there was rushing wind and fire and speaking in foreign languages.
What do we have? We have the Word of God—the Good News that Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins. We don’t have any living apostles to speak to us in our own language, but we do have their teaching in the New Testament. The same message that saved 3,000 people that day is the one that is proclaimed here. We also have Holy Baptism. The same Baptism received by 3,000 that day, brings you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, too. We have the Holy Spirit. He comes to us in God’s Word and Sacraments.
Amazingly, with all the wonderful promises connected to the Gospel and Sacraments, there are still those who insist on trying to find the blessings of the Holy Spirit elsewhere. Luther labeled such theologians “Schwaermer” or enthusiasts. He writes, “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit—without the Word and Sacraments—is the devil himself.”[i]
Luther understood the dire consequences of teaching people to find the Holy Spirit in places other than Christ’s Word and Sacraments. What are some of these consequences? First, when people say that they have found the Spirit outside of the Gospel, it always involves some kind of experience replacing the Word of God. The proclamation of Christ requires hearers to look outside of themselves at the Word. But if the Holy Spirit comes without the Word, then you need some feeling or experience to be sure that it’s Him. In Eden, Satan claimed that there would be blessings apart from God’s Word. When Adam and Eve gave into temptation, experience replaced faith in the Word. And we all know how that ended for them.
A second consequence of seeking the Spirit outside of the Word is uncertainty. Without the Word, there is no objective authority. The distinctions between speaker and hearer, pastor and people, even true and false are often blurred. One cannot say for certain, “We can find the Spirit here in God’s Word.” Instead, the Holy Spirit becomes a fleeting feeling or ecstatic experience.
A third consequence of seeking the Spirit outside of the Word is division. People argue about where to find the Spirit. Some people are said to have more of the Spirit than others.  Resentment results. The church of Christ should never be divided between “haves” and “have-nots.” In Christ, we are all “haves.”
Fourth, and most important, when people say they have found the Spirit outside of the Gospel of Jesus, then Christ Himself ends up taking a backseat. Remember, it is through the Gospel that the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. If God is said to be working through something other than the Gospel, then Jesus is diminished. Our own subjective feelings and experience overshadow Christ’s objective work of justification on the cross for the sins of the world.
By God’s grace, we have the Gospel. We have the Holy Spirit. And this is a great blessing as we live in the last days spoken of by Joel, begun on Pentecost.
What we don’t have is wind and fire. We don’t have speaking in tongues or other visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have mass conversions with thousands baptized in one day. Life here at St. John’s/Trinity/Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church is not near as exciting as the first Pentecost. Some would say that it’s not even as exciting as some of the other churches in the area.
Given that, it’s easy to see how some could become discouraged. We can easily get the impression that our church isn’t all it could be. We find ourselves thinking things like, “Yes, we have good doctrine, but we’re not ‘alive’ or exciting like other churches.” “We’re getting smaller and older and we just don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep going.” At times like that, we’re quick to stray from the Word of God. We look at other churches that are growing faster and want to adopt their methods for growth—scriptural or not. We grow weary of being careful with doctrine and practice. We justify such thoughts by thinking, “Nobody’s going to benefit from our sound doctrine if we can’t get them in the door.”
For these things, we need to repent. The measure of any church is not how big it is in terms of facility or numbers or budget, but whether it remains faithful to the Scriptures. The measure of any evangelism efforts is not how many people join our church, but in our faithfulness in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So let’s not doubt or be discouraged. Let’s faithfully examine God’s Word and preserve His precious teachings. Preserve it, not in the sense of keeping it to ourselves, but by continuing to proclaim exactly what God’s Word declares, that all people might hear and believe. For the Lord continues to pour out His Spirit through His means of grace. This is the Good News of life and salvation. Indeed, there’s no better news to be heard. Isn’t it great to live in the last days?
The Lord continues to call pastors into the Holy Ministry so that they might publicly proclaim His Word and administer His sacraments. By these means, the Lord continues to grant forgiveness and faith to His people. The Lord continues to send His Holy Spirit, calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying you so that you might depart from this place and go about the vocations that He has given you. And, as the opportunity arises, you give an answer to all who ask—friends, co-workers, and family—about the hope that is within you.
This is the evangelism program that God declares in His Word. This is the means by which God has chosen to send His Holy Spirit. If each of us truly rejoices in the means of grace and goes about the vocation that God has given us, there is no time or room for discouragement. There is only joy in the Lord.
Dear people of God: don’t be misled to be discouraged or ashamed of what we teach and practice here. If it’s in accordance with the Word of God, then we have the blessing of our Lord. Though there’s no wind or fire, what happens here is exactly what happened on the birthday of the Church. In these last days, the Lord still pours out His Holy Spirit, granting you forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He does so with the same means He used on that day—His Word and Sacrament.
Through these means of grace the Lord has provided life and salvation for the sake of His Son. Through these means of grace the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify you and the whole Christian church on earth. Through these means of grace our Lord continues to bring you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 281). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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