Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Gift of the Spirit for Faith and Witness

Acts 2:1-21 Over the last two years of catechesis, you young men have memorized Luther’s Small Catechism, including what he says in the explanation to the Third Article of the Creed that deals with the person and work of the Holy Spirit: 
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.  In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christians church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  In this Christian church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.”
If you wanted to make it even simpler you could say that we are called and equipped by the Spirit to know Jesus and make him known to others.  Young men, that is the gift you have been given and the claim of God upon your life.
On this Pentecost festival, we will see that Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior and so that we can take our place in making him known to the world.  The Bible says that: 
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were…filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…And at this sound the multitude came together…And they were amazed and astonished, saying…how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 
When we think about the day of Pentecost, we think about the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out by Jesus upon the church-- and of course that it true.  But it was a Jewish harvest festival long before it was a Christian holy day. 
In fact, that is why the disciples and Jews from all over the world were there in Jerusalem in the first place—to celebrate the harvest and give thanks to God for the fruits of the earth.  And so then…
It was no accident that the gift of God’s Spirit came upon the church on the Jewish harvest feast of Pentecost so that something much more valuable than crops could be harvested—human souls. 
It was no accident that Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims so that at just the right time the Gospel of forgiveness could be proclaimed to as many people as possible. 
It was no accident that people from all over the world were there so that the message of Christ’s peace could be taken to every place as they returned home. 
The God of creation doesn’t do accidents—then or now.  Jesus promised his disciples that believing in him, their hearts would be filled with the Living Water of the Holy Spirit.  And so it has been down to this day and the disciples sitting in this place.
We exist at this place and time and with the gifts and abilities that we have been given so that by the power of that same Holy Spirit WE can join in this Pentecost harvest miracle of sharing Christ with the world for the salvation of souls.
Much too often, we have a tendency to look at what we don’t have when it comes to the mission of Christ-- instead of believing that the same Spirit is still present among us--equipping us perfectly for our part in his mission. 
We are where we are- and we know what we know- and we have what we have- so that we too can proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord to our part of the world —a message that is for all people. 
Assembled there in Jerusalem on that Pentecost festival there were people from all over the world who heard about Jesus in their own language.  The Bible says that:  All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 
            As you have learned from the Small Catechism, that is a very Lutheran question.  What does this mean?  That is a question that people are still asking about Christians—maybe not the meaning of rushing winds and tongues of fire—but the meaning of our Christian lives and our faith and our message. 
What does it mean that Christians teach there is only one way to God when the world believes that there are many?  What does it mean that Christians will lay down their lives in martyrdom rather than deny Christ?  What does it mean that Christians think very differently about moral issues than the rest of the world?  What does it mean that Christians care for and love their enemies when there is so much hatred in the world?
These questions that the world has about the meaning of our lives and our faith and our message are our God-given opportunities—our Pentecost moments-- to bear witness to Jesus Christ to those around us.  That has been one of the reasons for your catechetical instruction:  to equip you to give answer for the hope you have in Jesus.
On Pentecost, the apostles had an opportunity to proclaim him to the people of the surrounding nations—but not to folks from west Texas—that’s our job for this time—and the gift of God’s Spirit is given to us for that very purpose—to proclaim Jesus Christ with clarity and courage where we are even-- though people will ridicule our faith just like that day.  The Bible says that:
Others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea…these men are not drunk…But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
            “This isn’t from God—they’re just drunk”.  Scorn and ridicule and conflict.  It is always going to be when we call people to turn from their sins and trust in Jesus.  You should understand that up front because in a few moments you are going to promise to suffer all, even death rather than fall away from Christ and the church.
The Bible says that the message of Christ is ridiculous to the unbelieving world.  It’s the height of foolishness to those who are perishing in their sins to believe that their salvation is found in a humble man who lived two thousands years ago.
Only God can change hearts like that!  That is why God’s gift of the Spirit is so important—both to those who speak and to those who hear!
The Holy Spirit who gave life to dry bones empowers those who speak the Gospel and fills their proclamation with the power of God himself so that hearts that are dead in sin and trespasses are made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit-- and what they once regarded as the height of foolishness (Jesus) becomes instead their life—and those believers who once shrunk back in fear-- step forward to boldly bear witness to Christ.
The Good News for us is that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit was not just for the twelve disciples-- but is promised to all of God’s people—including you young men being confirmed today.  God promised through the prophet Joel:
In the last days…I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
The gift of the Spirit is for young and old.  It is for men and women.  It is for people in every station in life no matter how humble-a promise that the power and presence of God himself dwells in our lives regardless of age, or gender, or status. 
That promise was fulfilled on Pentecost and the privilege to speak about Jesus on behalf of God—to prophesy—is given to all Christians—including you young men.
All Christians need to be about the Lord’s work because the events of our Lord’s death and resurrection—his ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit-- ushered in the Last Days—this time of grace in which the church has lived for the last two thousand years, calling the world to come to Christ and be saved while there is still time. 
The saving mission of Jesus Christ is why we exist as individuals and as a congregation at this moment—it is why all of God’s people are gifted with the Holy Spirit—so that we might be the Noah’s of our day, warning people of the wrath of God’s judgment to come, but also, and especially, inviting them to trust in Jesus and be saved before it is too late.  St. Luke writes of that day when the time of grace will come to an end—a time when there will be:
wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below…before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
            God wants everyone be saved-- but for that to happen people must call upon Jesus in faith.  That is why you were brought to the waters of Holy Baptism by your parents. That is why God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit—so that the saving Name of Jesus would be proclaimed to the ends of the earth-- so that people can know him and believe in him and call upon him and be saved.
For thousands of years, it was sufficient for salvation to believe in the Messiah to come.  But when Jesus took on flesh it became necessary to believe in a particular person who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth and preached in Galilee and died and rose again in Jerusalem. 
To be saved it is necessary for people to call upon the name of Jesus in faith-- and the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost so that Jesus could be proclaimed for the salvation of the world.  The same is still true today--salvation comes only by faith in Jesus—a faith that you are about to publicly confess. 
As the day of our Lord’s return in glory grows ever closer and the day of grace draws to an end--we thank God for his gift of the Holy Spirit—a gift that is given to all believers so that Jesus can be proclaimed for the salvation of the world and a rich, abundant harvest of souls be gathered in.  God grant that we would all do our part in his mission.  Amen. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Devoted to Prayer

Acts 1:12-26 On the night that Jesus was betrayed, after he and the disciples left the upper room, they journeyed to the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was there that Jesus fell to his knees in prayer, asking for his Father’s help in the hours to come and inviting his disciples to pray with him.  But in his hour of need, prayer was the very thing the disciples could not do. 
How different is that scene from the picture of the disciples that we find in our text today.  Less than six weeks after they failed so miserably to be men of prayer, the Bible says that they were devoted to prayer.  What accounts for this dramatic change in their prayer life in just a few short weeks?  The resurrection and ascension of Jesus made the difference! 
Now please understand, during his earthly ministry Jesus taught his disciples how to pray.  He promised that God would hear them when they prayed in his name.  But still they struggled to be men of prayer.  It was only after the resurrection and ascension that they become devoted to prayer.  So why is that?  It’s because…
After the resurrection they knew that Jesus was powerful beyond anything they had seen before!  They could be confident that he was more than capable of meeting their needs. 
They knew that they had an advocate in heaven who had forgiven them, a great high priest at the right hand of God who would intercede on their behalf. 
And they knew that the One who kept his promise to go to the cross and die and rise again would keep all of his promises to help and care for his people. 
As we consider the prayer life of these early Christians may we come to know the same—that our resurrected and ascended Savior is powerful and forgiving and faithful--and like the early church, become people devoted to prayer!  The Bible says that the disciples:
returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying…devoting themselves to prayer.
            With the ascension of Jesus, the disciples knew that they had a powerful advocate in the highest heavenly places and this confidence made them devoted to prayer. 
So it is for us.  Our prayers are not offered up to some impersonal force of the universe, who rules the world and our lives with cold, uncaring calculation.  Neither are our prayers offered up to some really nice guy who cares about us but lacks the power to help.
Instead, our prayers are offered up to the throne of God’s grace where Jesus stands at the Father’s right hand, lifting up his sacrifice for our sins and interceding for us. 
The same Jesus who calmed the seas and healed the sick and cared for the outcast and fed the hungry, that is who hears our prayers—that man of compassion and mercy and power who cares for us-- and changes things for us-- and meets our needs!
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus is what changed the disciples into men of prayer because they knew that Jesus had opened the way for them to come into the presence of God by forgiving them of their sins.  So it is for us. 
There is no more sin barrier that keeps us away from God because Jesus has dealt with that once and for all at the cross.  How important this forgiveness is to our life of prayer!
When we are living in some sin, when there is something that is not right in our life with our heavenly Father--and it cannot help but impact our prayer life.  We wonder to ourselves, “Why would God listen to me when I am disobeying him?”
But look at who it was that was devoted to prayer:  disciples who had denied Jesus- and friends who abandoned him- and his own brothers who had never believed in him.  And yet they were devoted to prayer because they knew that Jesus had forgiven them and made things right between them and God.  So it is for us.
Every sin that stands between us and God has been removed.  We are God’s children.  And Jesus stands ready to hear and answer us when we pray because he wants good things for us and will be faithful to his promises just as he has always been.  The Bible says that: 
Peter stood up and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David” and then Peter went on to tell the story of Judas, a story that had been prophesied in the Bible hundreds of years before it took place. 
It was a terrible story, a heartbreaking story, but it was not a surprising story to the disciples because God had told them about it in his Word and as these events unfolded they knew that the voice of God in his Word was real and living.
It’s important that we get this dynamic right when it comes to our life of prayer.
Prayer is an act of worship where we talk to God with our thoughts and words-- and the other half of that divine dialogue is God speaking to us in his Word. 
The early church was absolutely confident that God spoke through his Word because they saw it come to pass and this confidence made them people devoted to prayer.
Not only did they trust that God was listening-- and Jesus was interceding--they knew that they would get an answer because the Holy Spirit was speaking to them from the pages of Holy Scripture as they heard it preached and read in church. 
We all know how frustrating it is when we talk and talk and the person we talk to never responds.  Sometimes it seems that way with our life of prayer.  But the fault lies with us not with God.  Our prayer life is not what it should be because our connection to God’s Word is not what it should be. 
We expect some answer written in the sky or revealed in our heart when God has promised to speak to us in his Word.  The early Christians knew that the Holy Spirit was speaking to them through the Scriptures and that encouraged them to keep on talking to God in prayer. 
So it is for us if we will only listen to God’s Word as it is preached and read in church and read it for ourselves at home and then be prepared to do what God says. 
The Bible says that when Peter finished speaking to the followers of Jesus he told them that one of them would have to take Judas’ apostolic office and become a witness to the resurrection of Jesus in their mission to make Jesus known throughout the world.
Peter and the disciples and Jesus’ brothers and mother could devote themselves to prayer because they were willing to accept God’s answers to their prayers and do God’s will as they found it revealed in his Word. 
Oftentimes our prayer life is not what it should be—not because we doubt that God is listening—not because he will not answer—but because we know he is listening and we know that he will answer and we know what that answer will be and so it is better to not pray at all! 
We don’t pray about the bitterness in our hearts because we know God’s answer is to forgive.  We don’t pray about our finances because we know God wants us to put him first.  We don’t pray about our besetting sins because we have no intention of being done with them. 
Peter and the disciples knew that they had to fill Judas’ spot—they knew that they needed to get started on their mission to make Jesus known.  And what they needed from God—what they asked for- were only the gifts they needed to do what God commanded. 
Imagine if we had that attitude, how it would change our life of prayer—to go from begging God to do some miracle-- to asking him for only what we needed to do his will in every part of our lives—yielding ourselves to his wisdom and direction to accomplish it. 
That’s what the disciples did.  They put forward two men who could fill Judas’ spot and bear witness to Jesus and then the Bible says that: 
They prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry…and they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
            This was the first decision that the apostles faced after the ascension of the Lord.  It was critical to get it right.  The man chosen would be counted with the apostles and charged with their mission to tell the world about Jesus.  There were several possible choices but they commended it to God in prayer and trusted that God would answer—and he did! 
Now, we have to be careful to not make too much of the casting of lots.  This was an Old Testament practice never repeated again in the history of the apostolic church. 
What does endure for our instruction is the confident prayer of the disciples:  that God knew their need and would listen to their prayer and meet that need and they in turn would accept his will.  That example informs and shapes our own life of prayer.  And so then…
We are devoted to prayer because Jesus, our Lord and Savior, hears us and has the power to answer for our good.  We are devoted to prayer because there is no sin that keeps us from coming to God in our need.  We are devoted to prayer because we are willing to accept God’s answers no matter what they might be.
There was nothing particularly heroic or extraordinary in the disciples’ life of prayer.  The most important decision of the day was commended to the Lord in just a few words. 
The power to their prayer life was a resurrected and ascended Savior who promised to hear them and answer them just as he promises the same to us.  May we too be disciples who are devoted to prayer!  Amen.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Ascension of Jesus is Good News for Us

Acts 1:1-11 When we think of our Lord’s ascension into heaven we tend to think of it as a well-deserved rest at the end of a long day of work.  Jesus did what he needed to do for our salvation and so he went back to heaven to take it easy until it is time to judge the world.  But that really is a misunderstanding of what it means that he is seated at the Father’s right hand in glory because his saving work for us continues. 
            From everlasting to everlasting our Lord has been working for our salvation.  From before the creation of the world he knew us and loved us and chose us to be his own.  He worked out his plan of salvation throughout history.  He entered into human flesh and died and rose again. 
And EVEN NOW that he has ascended into heaven and resumed his glorious place at the Father’s right hand, he continues to work for our salvation so that we would live with him in heaven forever. 
As we reflect on God’s Word tonight what we are going to see that our ascended Lord is actively accomplishing his saving will in our lives-- and in the church and the world-- and we are witnesses of that salvation:  good news for us.  St. Luke writes:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
            If the ascension WAS about the Lord taking a much-needed break—who could blame him?  His entire life was dedicated to our salvation—every thought, word, and deed done for us so that we can have a life with God.
And these saving words and deeds are written down in the bible so that we can believe in Jesus and have life in his name.  John said at the end of his Gospel that these things are written so that we would believe in Jesus.  That’s the point of the whole Bible—including the two books that St. Luke wrote:  that all who hear and read them would believe in Jesus and have life in his name.
The Bible’s story of our Lord’s work of salvation is not like the story of the Greek and Roman gods or the pagan myths of the ancient world.  It is a story that is grounded in history.  People like us saw Jesus’ miracles and heard his teachings.  His death and resurrection are facts of history that people just like us witnessed.
St. Luke interviewed these eyewitnesses-- and gathered reports-- and traveled to the places of our Lord’s life so that he could write an accurate history of our Lord’s saving work and accurately record his gracious words. 
And not only did St. Luke write a human history of Jesus, he wrote the very words of God, inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that those who read his words can come to faith in Jesus through these words.
Theophilus was one who did.  St. Luke’s Gospel was the means by which the Holy Spirit brought him to faith and with the “Book of Acts” St. Luke tells him the rest of the story:  the story of the church- and the mission of Christ- and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit--all of which Jesus accomplished AFTER his ascension into heaven. 
Our Lord continued to work for the salvation of the world even after his return to the right hand of the Father.  He had a specific plan for the EVENTS of salvation-- but also a specific plan for how that salvation would go forth into the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  St. Luke writes that:
Jesus ordered the [disciples] not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
            Even though he would ascend into heaven, Jesus was not abandoning the church or leaving his disciples to their own devices.  He commissioned them to tell the world about all that he had said and done and he had a plan -and the provisions for that plan- to see the salvation of sinners accomplished—throughout the world, down through history, to us here tonight. 
His plan to save the world would begin were the disciples were right then—in Jerusalem—close to home.  And he would provide them what they needed—the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would pour out on them in just a few short days.
As we read the story of the church in Acts -and as we study history to see how the church went from an oppressed, persecuted group of a few hundred to thousands and today to billions--the wisdom and power of our ascended King is on full display. 
Jesus has not been napping over these last two thousand years since his ascension!  He has been graciously and wisely ordering the affairs of the church- and providing for us spiritually- and ruling the world so that we can be saved through the Gospel.
In every place and time where the Good News about Jesus is preached and given in the Sacraments, there the Holy Spirit is given by Jesus so that we can come to faith and then take our place among his people and do our part in his mission to save the world. 
Before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples that it was for their own good that he was returning to his Father—and we see in what follows how true that is.  St. Luke writes that:
When [the disciples] had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.
            We know how the disciples struggled to understand what Jesus came to do.  Even when they confessed him as the Christ and the Son of God they were still painfully mistaken about what that confession meant, thinking only of an earthly things—not salvation from sin or reconciliation with God.
But Jesus came to give his life as a ransom to set us free from sin.  Jesus came to destroy death by rising from the dead.  Jesus came to make us a part of God’s kingdom and restore us to God’s family and take us to heaven. 
Jesus did not come to heal every sick person.  He did not come to raise every person from the dead only to see them die again.  And he certainly did not come to re-establish an earthly Israel filled with material blessings for a select few.
So long as Jesus was right there beside them, the disciples would always be tempted to long for these kinds of things and it is only after his ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that they really begin to grasp the greatness of our Lord’s mission:  that it wasn’t really about one little country or one particular group of people but that Jesus’ mission encompassed the entire universe and all people. 
The salvation of the world is what Jesus came to accomplish and the disciples needed to turn their eyes away from their own narrow interests and take their place in his mission to make known the greatness of our Savior’s love for all people. 
The same is true for us.  We too are tempted to see our relationship with Jesus as having a “genie in a bottle” who will give us what we want-- when we want it-- and serve our narrow vision of what’s important.
But Jesus’ concern is for the world and for all people and he calls us to look beyond ourselves to the salvation of others.  And so Jesus blesses us with the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower our witness to his salvation.  Jesus told them:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
            Jesus kept his promise.  Ten days after these words were spoken, he poured out the Holy Spirit on his disciples and immediately they began to bear witness to God’s salvation in Jesus.  Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit for the same purpose. 
That we believe in him and trust in him is a sure sign that we have the Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that:  no one can say:  Jesus is Lord EXCEPT by the Holy Spirit.  But that we know and believe in Jesus (as wonderful as that is!) is not the end of his saving purpose in our lives and it’s not the end of the Spirit’s work in us.
 Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit so that we would take our place among his people and fulfill our purpose in his mission to save all people before the day of judgment when it will be too late.  St. Luke writes that:
While they were gazing into heaven as Jesus went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
            Jesus ascended into heaven with power and glory and was welcomed home as a mighty, conquering king who is to be worshiped and adored and glorified forever.
            He will return in exactly the same way—in power and glory for the final deliverance of his people-- but also for the final destruction of his enemies. 
Between his ascension day and his judgment day he has called us and equipped us by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to salvation and do all within the power he gives to make sure the number of his enemies is as small as possible!
And so our eyes are not directed to the clouds --but to our fellow man and to the mission that our Lord has entrusted to our hands, confident that our ascended King will accomplish his saving purpose through us.  May God grant it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.