Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Faith Comes From Hearing

Romans 10:9-17 All of us have struggles in our life of faith.  Often times there is a fairly significant gap between what we say we believe and what we actually live out in our lives.  When we go through hard times we wonder to ourselves:  Is God really with me?  Is he really working for my good in this trial?  We struggle with the same old sins and never seem to make much progress in living a holy life.
These trials and struggles and doubts and difficulties seem to pile up on one another and cause us to doubt whether we are really even a Christian at all.  They cause us to question our life with God and wonder if we really will be saved at the last.  I want you to hear what God says to you today in his holy Word:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
            When we are confronted by our sins, when we struggle under trials and temptations, when we never make the spiritual progress that we want to make:  I want you to remember these words:  you will be saved!  You will be saved! 
Your salvation does not rest on your sin-less-ness.  Your salvation does not rest on your spiritual progress in holy living.  Your salvation does rest upon your good works.
Your salvation rests safe and secure upon the rock-solid foundation of the person and work of Jesus Christ:  that he is the one true and living God in human flesh who has died for you on the cross to take away your sin and has been raised to defeat death for you.
That is what Paul was inspired by the Spirit to write when he said:  Jesus is Lord.  Not just that Jesus in our master—of course that is true!  But this earliest Christian creed:  Jesus is Lord means that Jesus is Jehovah, Jesus is Yahweh, Jesus is the Savior God who has always come to the aid of his people and now has taken upon himself your flesh and bore your sins and died in your place and was raised as your Great Champion over sins and death.
That is who Jesus is and that is what Jesus has done and believing that, God himself, in his divine courtroom has declared you not guilty:  not guilty over your sins; not guilty over your doubts; not guilty over your failures.  Not guilty—now and forever! 
Believing that- and confessing that:  you are right in God’s sight and you will be saved.  It may seem at first glance that believing and confessing are two different things but that are not—they are simply two different aspects of the same thing:  the heartfelt faith that Jesus is our Lord and Savior that comes to us as we hear and believe his Word. 
Believing is what happens in our heart as we trust in Jesus for our salvation and confessing is the public testimony of that same faith: that Jesus is my Savior from sin and death and the one and only hope for all mankind-- and so it has always been:
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 
            The Scripture that Paul is quoting is from the prophet Isaiah and here’s the point:  in the Old Testament and the New Testament; for God’s ancient people the Jews and for the Gentiles who were coming to faith in Paul’s day; for every person in every time and place; there was, and is, and always will be, one and only one way of salvation and that is faith in the promises of God regarding his Messiah.
 For Adam and Eve he was the Seed of the Woman whose shed blood would crush Satan.  For Moses he was the greater Prophet who would speak God’s Word.  For Abraham he was the sacrificial lamb sacrificed in place of his own son.  For David he was the Good Shepherd and everlasting King who would care for his people.  For Isaiah he was the virgin-born child who was the everlasting father and the crucified man who was stricken and afflicted and whose would bring peace.  For Zechariah he was the humble King who would come to his people on the back of a donkey and for Malachi he was a refining fire and morning star and God himself in his temple.
For us he is the baby of Bethlehem and the man of the cross and the victorious champion standing beside his grave alive and he is the ascended, reigning king. 
For Jew and Gentile, for Israel and the Church, for people in every time and place he is Jesus Christ, God in flesh and EVERYONE who believes in him will never be put to shame and EVERYONE who calls upon him in faith will be saved and EVERYONE who lives in him and with him will be blessed by God with riches beyond measure.
Believing in Jesus:  we never have to worry that there is another way of salvation; that there is another way to have a life with God; that there is another way to have a rich, abundant, blessed life in time and eternity. 
Trusting in Jesus we will go through life unafraid and unashamed-- and when he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead--we will not cower in fear but we will lift up our heads knowing that our redemption is at hand. 
This is true for all people, without exception, who call upon the Lord in faith.  But at the same time, it is true ONLY for those who call upon him in faith. 
The way of salvation that is found in Jesus Christ ALONE is so broad that his arms of love stretched out upon the cross embrace all people without exception-- but it is also so narrow that only those who hear the Good News and believe in him will be saved.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
            I have told this story to my Bible class before so I apologize to them in advance.  I was already at the seminary when my little sister called me on a Sunday afternoon after a mission festival at her church and she said, “Allan, do you now that everyone who does not believe in Jesus will go to hell?! “  And I said, “Well, yes, Kristi, I know that.” 
I think that she really did too-- but the missionary’s sermon struck her that day in a very profound and personal way as to just exactly what is at stake when it comes to people hearing about Jesus—that if they are to be saved, they must hear of him and believe in him. 
And so I hope to do the same for you here today because, when this connection is made in the people of God, the way they view the church is changed forever.
In our world today there are seven billion people.  Two billion of them identify in some way with Christianity.  Let’s say all of them are Christians (which they are not) but that leaves five billion people who, if they were to die today would be lost forever and go to hell for eternity. 
Men, women and children.  Decent, kind, upright people.  Families and friends no different than your own.  All of them separated from God eternally because they did not hear of and believe in Jesus.
And so then Paul asks those questions that connect every unbelieving person in this world directly to you as a believer:  how can people believe in Jesus if they have never heard of him?  They can’t!  How can people hear of him if no one ever speaks to them about Jesus?  They can’t!  How can someone ever speak about Jesus is there is no church that calls them and commissions them and consecrates them to do so?  They can’t!
With these questions we have gone on a necessary journey that connects the person who has been blessed by God with saving faith in Jesus Christ (that’s you!) to every person in the world who does not have saving faith in Jesus Christ and needs to hear of him before they die and face God’s judgment and everlasting punishment. 
Brother and sisters in Christ, there are people in this world and in our community who will be lost forever unless WE take our part in God’s work by supporting the mission of the church throughout the world and unless we speak about Jesus to those around us. 
And if we are timid and hesitant about speaking up-- and if we say that the church ought to be about some other kind of work and have some other priority--hear the judgment of the living God on those who go about his work of talking about Jesus:  “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
You can a lot of things about my feet—beautiful is not one of them.  Especially in the ancient world people’s feet took a beating.  But this most humble part of our body God counts as beautiful as we are about his work in bearing witness to Jesus even when that message is not always well received.  The Bible says:
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
            Here in this verse we come face to face with the great impediment that keeps so many of us from bearing faithful witness to Jesus Christ:  that there are those who will reject our message.  This is not unique to us and it is nothing new—Isaiah experienced it in his day--Paul did too.
But in these same verses is an incredible promise that ought to stir us up and move us on in the Lord’s mission:  faith DOES comes by hearing the word of Christ!  Listen to that again: faith comes by listening to the word of Christ!  Do you understand what a wonderful, powerful promise that is!?  That as the Good News of Jesus is shared, there in that place, in that moment, in that person’s life, the Holy Spirit is at work brining about faith when and where it pleases him.

Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ!  We can say “amen” to that in our life and we can take our stand on that promise as we witness to others!  Amen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Let the Children Come to Me!

Luke 18:15-17 All of us have heard the old story about the plumber whose bathtub doesn’t drain or the mechanic whose car has bad brakes or the attorney who doesn’t have a will.  Maybe we have seen that Norman Rockwell painting of the overweight doctor with a cigarette in his mouth lecturing his patient about his health. 
The point being that even people who ought to know better are often times blind to the needs that are right before their eyes.
The same thing can happen in the church.  All of us know the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ:  Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded. 
This command and invitation involves brining people into the Kingdom of God and training them in his ways. 
The Church at large-- and this congregation-- have responded to that glorious invitation to take our part in the Lord’s mission to save all people.  Paul was sent to the Gentiles.  Thomas made it as far as India.  By the beginning of the second century A.D. Christianity was already established in Great Britain.
So it has gone down through the ages as the people of God have responded to the Lord’s call to make disciples of all people.  Our own congregation supports missionaries in Asia and Africa and it is exciting to hear those stories of how the Good News of Jesus has touched people all over the world.
The commission of Jesus to make disciples of ALL nations really does mean ALL.  ALL includes people of every nation, tribe, people and language.  It includes God’s ancient people the Jews.  It includes people across the world who we will never know until we get to heaven. 
But brothers and sisters in Christ, this charge to make disciples of all nations—to bring people into the kingdom and train them in the ways of the kingdom-- also includes those who are closest to us—those we know and love best. 
It also includes those who the Lord, in his wisdom, has placed into our care in our families.  It includes our children.  We begin to fulfill the Lord’s Great commission and take our place in this important mission work when we bring our children to Jesus and teach them the ways of the kingdom of God.  The Bible says that:  The people were bringing even infants to Jesus that he might touch them.
I would not have to make this point at the beginning to the people of the ancient world but in this place and time it does need to be made:  there were children in that place who could be brought to Jesus at all!
We live in a culture that is ambivalent at best about children and at world is outright antagonistic.  It is legal in our country and throughout much of the co-called Christian West for parents-- who have been gifted by God with a baby-- to murder that baby in utero.  St. Mother Teresa was absolutely correct when she said:
The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child…
And even where the child is allowed to live there is still profound ambivalence about how children are to be regarded—as a blessing or a burden.
Our godless, materialistic culture sees children as a burden or an imposition or a roadblock to our self-will and our self-love and our self-determination.  But the people who were bringing their children to Jesus that day knew God’s own truth about them:  that they were blessings from God and that the family who had more children had more blessings.
There is nowhere- and I mean nowhere- in the Bible where God speaks of children as anything other than his blessing.  Sadly, the people of God have forgotten that today as the birthrate among Christians is no different than that of the unbelieving world around us. 
But the believers who came to Jesus with the children, even their infants, believed that their children were blessings from God and they wanted for them the blessings that only Jesus can give.  The Bible says that when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.
When we hear these words and picture this scene in our minds we can’t help but wonder to ourselves, “Why on earth would anyone keep a child from Jesus?  Who thinks that is a good idea!?” 
But the disciples did-- and so do many people in the church today as well.  They do it because they really do not understand that children—and even infants—also need what only Jesus can do for them and that is forgive their sin and make them a part of God’s family.
There is nothing in this world sweeter and more precious to us than our babies and children but we have to believe what Jesus says about them—that flesh gives birth to flesh—that they too must be born again from above by the Holy Spirit if they are to have their own place in God’s kingdom.  The Bible teaches that:
Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people…
Every one of our children—born of their parents’ love--are part of Adam’s family and because they are a part of Adam’s family the judgment of God pronounced upon Adam falls upon them too.  No one is excluded from that—no one.
And yet the God who created them, loves them-- and desires to be a heavenly Father to them-- and has sent his Son Jesus Christ for them—to die on the cross for them and to give them a new and eternal life in his kingdom. 
That is why Jesus gave the Great Commission to the church—so that all people could have a life with him through baptism and faith in his teachings— even, and especially, our children. 
That is why we bring our children to Jesus in the waters of Holy Baptism-- so that the saving benefits of his death and resurrection can become their own.  That is why we teach our children to obey everything our Lord has taught us so that they can come to Jesus and take their place in his kingdom.  The Bible says that: 
Jesus called the parents and the disciples to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.
I know that every parent sitting here this morning wants the best for your children.  I have absolutely no doubt about that whatsoever!  You sacrifice for your children.  You pray for your children.  You encourage them and disciple them and guide them and pick them up again and again when they stumble and fall.  You want the best for your children.
But brothers and sisters in Christ, I will tell you that the “best” when it comes to your children is not the right kind of career.  The best is not fame and fortune.  The best is not a lifetime free from worries or difficulties.  The best is for them to take their place in the kingdom of God and be his children first and live with him forever.
As parents we don’t always know what to say or do when it comes to our kids.  We have—and will—make parenting mistakes.  Praise God that he has made our children resilient enough to survive our parenting-- and praise God that he forgives us and helps us begin again in the power and help of the Holy Spirit to fulfill our calling as Christian parents!
But brothers and sisters, whatever other mistake we may make, we cannot get this wrong:  that our first priority as parents is bring our children to Jesus and see them take their place in his Kingdom and learn his ways.
That I why we baptize them.  That is why we read them Bible stories before bed.  That is why we teach them to pray.  That is why we bring them to church and Sunday School.  That is why we have a Christian school and early childhood center.
This Church understands that our responsibility as Christians- first and foremost--is to see that our children are brought to the faith and trained in the faith and taught the faith so that they can be a part of God’s kingdom in time and for eternity.  Jesus says:  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
That our children are to be our very first mission priority—that our children first brought into the Kingdom of God and trained in its ways is not an exception to the way that God works in this world or something out of the ordinary—but it is the very pattern for ALL our mission work and evangelism efforts!
Every person in this world—by nature—is just as helpless in spiritual things as is the tiniest newborn baby!  Every person in this world—by nature—has just as much to learn about God’s kingdom as does the youngest child in our early childhood center.  No one comes into the Kingdom of God in any other way than by simple faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so then, to fulfill the Lord’s mission in this place we need an early childhood center and we need a Christian school and we need a vibrant Sunday School if for no other reason than that WE would learn that the Lord’s love and care and concern for souls extends to ALL people, even the least in the world’s eyes-- and so our love and care and concern is to extend to all people, even the least in the world’s eyes, beginning with those who are closest to us. 

When we pray for and encourage and support Christian education we are showing that we take seriously our Savior’s words when he invites the little children to come to him and promises them a place in his kingdom.  Amen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hear the Word of the Lord!

Jeremiah 7:1-11 It is important to be in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day.  It so important that it’s one of the Ten Commandments:  Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Luther’s Small Catechism explains it this way:  “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
God wants us to be in worship and Bible study on the Lord’s Day to receive Christ’s gifts of forgiveness and the strengthening of the Spirit.  But as I always remind our confirmation students, it’s not just our presence that God wants-- but our thoughtful worship.  Hearing God’s Word means taking it to heart.  Learning God’s Word means putting it into practice in our lives.
I am so thankful to God for everyone present here today-but we ought to be aware that the devil and our flesh can misuse this sacred time in God’s house by turning it into an outward act that has no real connection to our lives in the week to come-- because we do not take to heart what we hear or put it into practice in our lives.
That’s what happened to the people in Jeremiah’s day.  They kept the outward form of worship but they never let it change their lives.  They still did, and said, the right “religious” things.  But God’s word had absolutely no influence on their lives—they went on living in unbelief just like they had before- with no improvement of life.
God intends for his words of law and gospel to change us—to deepen our faith and influence our decisions and to lead us in his ways.  Our lives ought to be different in this new week because of what we have heard today from God today.  The Bible says:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord.
            When we come into the Lord’s house, what we ought to expect to hear—what we ought to demand to hear --is the Word of the Lord!  Not a stringed-together series of amusing anecdotes.  Not what the pastor thinks about politics or current events.  Not some self-help pep talk.  But we ought to hear God’s word of law that condemns our sin and his word of gospel that forgives our sins in Jesus. 
God has given to pastors what he wants preached-- and that is his written Word-- and you should not listen to any man who comes in the name of the Lord bringing anything else other than God’s Word.  BUT-- when the Word of God is preached-- you ought to receive it for what it is:  nothing less than the Lord’s Word to you
When you walk into this place for worship you ought to have an expectancy that the one true and living God of the universe has something that he wants you to know—that he wants to change the way you live and deepen your faith in Jesus and guide your life by his Spirit.  He certainly wanted that for the people of Jeremiah’s day.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 
            These words were spoken by God through Jeremiah at a particularly dark moment in Judah’s history as the temporal judgment of God was about to befall them.  But even in that late hour-- it was not too late.  There was still time for them to hear the Lord and take his words to heart and put them into action in their lives before they were carried off into exile.   
            Specifically, God wanted them to amend their ways and deeds.  In other words, change how they were living—renew their faith in him—and commit to doing things differently in the future.  God wants the same for us.
And so let me just ask you in all honesty, when was the last time you heard something in church or in Bible study and you said to yourself, “You know, I’m wrong in this.  I’ve done the wrong thing.  I’ve said the wrong thing.  This part of my life isn’t right”.  And you told the Lord you were sorry and asked for his forgiveness. 
But you left the Lord’s house and did not do one concrete thing to change the situation or make it right-- and your life was not one bit different than it was before?  Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Amend your ways and your deeds! 
In other words:  be reconciled to that person you are at odds with!  Stop petting those pet sins!  Change the way you treat the people in your marriage and family and church!  Amend your ways and your deeds while there is still an opportunity and do not think for an instance that merely being present in the Lord’s house is a substitute for a living faith and a changed life.  Jeremiah told the people of that day and us too:
Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
            So what did Jeremiah mean by this, that these were deceptive words?  After all, they WERE in the temple of the Lord!  How could they be deceived about that?  What he meant was that the people were deceiving themselves with these words, thinking that they promised something that they didn’t.
About 150 years before, the northern kingdom experienced the judgment of God at the hands of the Assyrians.  They suffered God’s righteous wrath for all the years they had worshipped false gods in pagan places when the true temple and the true worship of the true God was in Jerusalem.
When Jeremiah spoke these words, the people of Judah were still worshiping in the temple.  They were still offering up the sacrifices.  They were still going through the motions of worship.  Outwardly, it looked like things were fine.
But when Jeremiah came to them with God’s Word, warning them of judgment to come, calling them to amend their lives before it was too late—they turned a deaf ear to what God had to say and went on as before, denying that they even needed a savior.
You see, alongside of Jeremiah there were false prophets who told them they had nothing to be afraid of—that Jeremiah was just a fear-monger—the God would never think about letting anything happen to his temple-- and so long as they were saying the right words and doing the right things in worship-- they had nothing to fear.
But they were deceived-and there is no deception as dangerous to our souls as a religious deception-- for it blinds us to the truth about ourselves and the truth about God! 
We have a beautiful sanctuary.  The creeds and confessions of our church are faithful and true.  We have worship services that are dignified and God-glorifying. 
But they have a purpose beyond this time and place of worship:  that you would repent of your sins and trust in Jesus and amend your ways and your deeds. 
And if you tell yourself that it is plenty good enough that you have come to church—that God ought to be satisfied with your standing and sitting and bowing—you are in a particularly dangerous place spiritually because what God really wants is to change your life beyond this hour—for time and eternity.  The Bible says:
If you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
            When we are truly sorry for our sins- and when we truly believe in Jesus -our lives will be different.  Not perfect—but better.  Not without sin—but always hating sin and desiring to be done with it.  Striving to love God and man as the law demands.
Our faith in Jesus is not some set of theological propositions we try to keep straight in our heads—it has an impact on every facet of our lives—on our life with others and on our life with God.  And so what does that mean for you this week?
Amendment of your ways and your deeds means that, when it comes to your life with others, you will make a real, concrete effort to do what you know is right from God’s Word.  Anger and lust and coveting and gossiping will be taken to the cross and left behind, washed away in the blood of Jesus.
Amendment of life means that, when it comes to our relationship with God, we will make a real effort this week to be faithful in our prayers and bible-reading—that we will turn aside from occasions for sin and walk by the Spirit.  It means that we will stop misusing God’s name and stop worrying--that we will rest in the forgiveness of Christ.  
When it comes to amending our ways and our deeds we must resist the temptation so say:  it’s too late to change now.  It’s not!  No more than it was for the Israelites. 
This is a day of God’s grace—a day that he has given for us to hear that Jesus forgives us and that the Spirit will help us—that so long as we are living and breathing God will keep his promise to bless us and forgive us and change our lives for time and eternity.  Sadly, the people of Jeremiah’s day refused God’s salvation and turned a deaf ear to his call for repentance.  He told them:
“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
            They did the very opposite of what God asked of them.  They mistreated their fellow man and they abandoned the Lord for false gods.  The regarded the Lord’s house as a lucky rabbit’s foot that would keep them safe-- rather than the place to hear the voice of God calling them to heartfelt repentance and faith.  The way they lived- and the way they worshipped- revealed that they really had no faith at all.
They were going through the motions of worship—but God saw directly into their hearts.  The temple that had been set apart for the worship of the true God (to hear his voice and receive his forgiveness) had become a den of robbers—not because God was not present there with his gifts of forgiveness-- but because the people had no faith to recognize him there.
This place too is set apart for the worship of the true God—to hear his Word and receive the forgiveness that Jesus Christ won for us on the cross—to be renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament so that we can amend our lives.  God is here with the gracious gifts of forgiveness and life he gives in Jesus Christ.
What about us?  We must not think that we are magically immune from sins and failures of God’s ancient people --for we are not.  We need the deliverance from sin and death God has given in Jesus just like they did-- and God’s call through the prophet to amend our ways and our deeds is spoken to us too! 

And so I pray that, as we hear and learn God’s Word this Lord’s Day, we would take it to heart and put it into practice in our lives. Amen.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Examples for Our Instruction

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 As I read the words from the beginning of our text, I want you to underline the word, “all.”  The Bible says: 
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were ALL under the cloud, and ALL passed through the sea, and ALL were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and ALL ate the same spiritual food, and ALL drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
            Do you know how many folks are included in that word “all”?  Six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty besides all the women and children—certainly over two million people.  Millions of people delivered from slavery to freedom—millions of people cared for--by the powerful, merciful love of their Savior God.
All of them walked on dry land directly through the waters of the Red Sea, led by Moses, while their enemies perished in those same waters.  All of them were miraculously fed in the desert by food from God that came down each day from heaven.  All of them had their thirst miraculously met for decades in that dry land.  All of them were guided on their journey to the Promised Land.  And Christ walked with them every step of the way. 
In every way—in every moment—in material blessings and in spiritual blessings-- the Lord generously, graciously met the needs of all.  Six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty left Egypt as free men.  Do you know how many entered the Promised Land?  Two! 
The Bible says:  With most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.  That has to be the greatest understatement in the Bible!  Most of them!?  Two out six hundred thousand is certainly “most” alright!
God’s purpose in their deliverance—God’s purpose in their freedom—God’s purpose in their provision (to bring them into the Promised Land) was fulfilled in two of the six hundred thousand men who started out on that journey, for the rest were “overthrown” in the wilderness.  In other words, God exercised his temporal judgment upon them on account of their sins.
Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul recounts this sad history so that we would learn from it—so that the same judgment would not befall us as we journey to heaven. 
We have all been set free from slavery to sin and death (much harsher masters than Pharaoh) by the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ upon the cross.  All of us have been baptized into Christ Jesus, our spiritual enemies washed away.  All of us are fed with food from heaven in Holy Communion.  All of us have our material needs generously and graciously met.  All of us have the abiding, guiding presence of Christ to walk with us through the wilderness of this world on our journey to the Promised Land of heaven.
What more could our Savior God possibly do for us than he has already done- and promises to do in the days to come -just like he did for all of those who came out of Egypt, of whom, two entered the Promised Land!  The Bible says that: 
These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.  Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
            Paul was supremely aware from the history of God and his people that it is entirely possible to have been blessed by God in mighty ways and still not enter heaven because of our own abject rejection of his grace and our own stubborn unwillingness to turn form sin. 
In the verses immediately preceding our text Paul speaks of this very thing in his own life and says that he disciplines his body and keeps it under control so that after preaching to others he himself wouldn’t be disqualified from the imperishable crown of eternal life. 
If Paul knew this about himself, how much more should we know the same about our own life of faith!  And so Paul records this story for us so that we would learn from it and take the lessons of history seriously and not repeat them and lose our way to heaven!
What was it that kept all but two men from entering the Promised Land?  Paul says it was:  idolatry; sexual immorality; putting God to the test; and grumbling.  These sins undermined their journey of faith; earned God’s judgment;  kept them out of the Promised Land. 
And so then we have to ask ourselves:  Do I fear, love and trust in God above all things?  Do I attribute all good things in my life to God alone?  Does he come first in my life and is that priority readily seen in how I live my life? 
We have to ask ourselves:  Am I leading a sexually pure and decent life in word and deed?  Do I entertain myself with sexual immorality in movies or TV or the novels I read?  Am I endeavoring in my marriage to love and honor my spouse?  Am I making excuses for- and room for- the sexual sins of those around me?
We have to ask ourselves:  Am I tempting God by turning God’s grace into a license for sin in my life?  Am I excusing some pet sin rather than repenting of it?  Am I continuing to sin with no real sorrow and no real amendment of life, believing that I will still be forgiven?
We have to ask ourselves:  am I grateful for every single blessing of body and soul, large or small that the Lord has poured out upon me or am I embittered by what I don’t have and envious of what others have?
We must ask ourselves these questions seriously because these are exactly these same kinds of sins that kept all but two men out of the Promised Land and sin will have exactly the same deadly effect on our own life faith.  The Bible says that:
These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction,
            Most of us have heard the phrase “Those who will not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” and that is exactly why the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to write these words—so that believers in every time and place would learn from the lessons of salvation history. 
Even for the people of Moses’ day, every time God exercised his judgment upon some of them—and there were many such occasions-- all of the rest of them should have learned from it. 
            Paul says that is especially true for us Christians, on whom the end of the ages has come.  All of human history- and all of salvation history- has reached its culmination in Jesus Christ.  He is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last—he is the purpose and fulfillment of all of human history-- so that there is not one thing left undone- that must be done -before the final judgment and the end of the world. 
            From the moment of Christ’s ascension into heaven, the world continues to exist only until that moment the Lord has gathered to himself all of those who are his.  And so it is especially incumbent upon us, that in this late hour, we do not fall victim to our sins and miss the crown of life. 
But how do we do that when so many who have come before us—so many who were blessed by God just like we are blessed by God—have missed out?  The Bible says:
Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.
            To withstand temptation, to complete our journey through the wilderness of this world, to receive the fullness of God’s redeeming work we must, first of all be on guard in our own lives for those very things that kept so many Israelites out of the Promised Land. 
We must have deep sense of humility that recognizes that we are no different than they were—that their story in the Bible is not recorded so that we can say:  “Those bad Jews”-- but so that we can see ourselves in their story and learn from them. 
We must also understand that the temptations we face are no different and no greater than the people of God have faced in the past—that in this is both warning and a promise. 
We are just as susceptible to Idolatry and sexual immorality and grumbling and tempting God as were the Israelites. 
But we are also just as capable as trusting God as was Daniel when he was thrown into the lion’s den; and we are just a capable of sexual faithfulness as was Joseph as when he fled the temptations of Potiphar’s wife; and we are just as capable of gratitude as was Naaman when he was healed of leprosy; and we are just as capable of repenting of our sins rather than testing God’s grace as was David when he sinned. 
We are capable of the same because the God who has saved us is the same and will strengthen and sustain us on our journey.  The Bible says that:
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
            When we look at the salvation history of our own lives we can see that our story is the same as God’s ancient people—that it is the story of God’s faithfulness rather than our own faithfulness-- and that is Good News indeed.  God promises that he who began a good work in us WILL bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so then with every temptation we encounter, God makes a way for us to face it and remain faithful in the midst of it.  He moderates the intensity and duration of our trials.  He raises up people around us to encourage us when we struggle.  He gives us his Word and Sacrament for spiritual strengthening.  And today he warns us-- in the strongest way--about the dangers of falling away.

God desires that we would live with him in heaven forever.  That is the reason he has created us and redeemed us and provided for us in our daily life.  Let us take seriously the examples from salvation that are written for our learning and walk the narrow way that leads to eternal life.  Amen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Beware of False Prophets!

Matthew 7:15-23 There are a number of frightening scenes of God’s judgment in the Bible:  Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden with a sword-bearing angel blocking their way back; the flood of Noah’s day destroying every living thing except those on the ark; and the ground opening up and swallowing the disobedient and rebellious at Korah. 
There are many, many others—but for me, this scene of the final judgment that we have before us today in our Gospel lesson is one of the most frightening-- for there is no chance for repentance for those being judged and the fiery punishment is eternal.
On one side is heaven and an eternal life of joy and blessing with God.  On the other side is hell—an eternity of torment in fire.  Before the multitude stands Jesus Christ—not as the babe of Bethlehem—not as the gentle rabbi—not as the suffering man of the cross—but as the king of kings and lord of lords and righteous judge whose holy eyes see directly into souls of those assembled before him for judgment.
The people going into the eternal fire had always—even in that late moment—regarded themselves as God’s people.  They used religious words.  They did religious works.  Jesus said that there are many of these kind of people who saw themselves one way-- while God saw them differently.
They thought they knew God—but Jesus never knew them—and he judged them guilty of lawlessness and sent them into the eternal fires of hell from which there is no escape.
That alone is frightening—but the really frightening thing is that right up until that moment they were cast into the lake of fire—they thought everything was fine between them and God—but they were profoundly deceived about that which is most important—their relationship with God. 
How had they come to that place of fiery eternal punishment from which there was no return?  How could they have avoided it altogether?  These are the questions that Jesus answers for us today.  He said:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
            The Bible says in Romans chapter ten that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God and in the first chapter of James the Bible says that that God brought us forth by the word of truth and in the first chapter of I Peter the Bible says that that we have been born again by the living and abiding word of God. 
That is how important the truth of God’s Word is—it is a matter of our eternal salvation—that we would know the truth rather than lies about our life with God and be born again to a true and living faith in Jesus. 
Conversely, that is the deadly danger of false prophets-- for they do not bring the saving truth of God words--but lies that deceive people to eternal damnation. 
What is truly frightening about false prophets is that they are found WITHIN the church.  Not every person who holds themselves out as a pastor and teacher can be trusted to tell us the truth and lead us to heaven. 
Not only is it possible that someone is a false prophet—Jesus tells us that there WILL BE false prophets that we have to beware of.  Paul said the same thing—that there will come a day when people in the church will not endure faithful teaching but will flock to pastors and teachers who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear.
Jesus says these false prophets come in “sheep’s clothing”—in other words they intentionally try to fit in with the flock of the Good Shepherd—presenting themselves as harmless—cloaking themselves in the trappings of Christianity-- while all the time they are absolutely deadly to our life with God because they do not bring us the truth—but lies that lead to destruction. 
But as dangerous as they are and as deceptive as these false prophets are—they can still be recognized—not by their outward appearance (which they try to hide)—but by what they say.  Jesus says:
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
            When it comes to false prophets, Jesus says that we are to do two things:  watch out for them—that is, believe him when he says that they exist within the church and be on the lookout for them—and secondly, we are recognize them for who they are—in other words, we are to be discerning in who we listen to and measure their teaching by the perfect standard of God’s Word. 
False prophets are deceptive and they are dangerous but Jesus expects us to be on guard against them and be able to recognize them by examining their fruit.
The fruit of a prophet—be he true or false—is what he teaches—not how he seems on the outside, not how pious he acts, not how great is his following or how beautiful his sanctuary, not even if he is able to do miracles—but whether or not what he preaches and teaches is exactly what the word of God says—no more and no less—in big things and small.  That is the measure of a prophet.
You will notice that Jesus assumes that his followers will know enough of the Bible to make that determination—that they are to be as familiar with the great truths of the Bible as they are with the everyday things in the world around them.
He used the example of the plants and trees that they were familiar with.  If he were here today he would remind us that we don’t look for peaches on Mesquite trees and we don’t look for grapes on Catclaw and neither should we look for anything good from a false prophet who cannot bring himself to simply teach God’s Word as it is written. 
But many people do that very thing.  There are countless millions of people who call themselves Christians who sit in pews Sunday after Sunday or in front of a Television listening to some false prophet who, in the name of Jesus, teaches lies. 
They listen to him because of the fancy church he preaches in.  They listen because he’s an excellent speaker and draws great crowds.  They listen because he is reported to do miracles.  But no matter how impressive the outward trappings—Jesus knows which prophets are his own and which are not-- and those who are not can only expect his fiery judgment.  Jesus says:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
            In James chapter 3 the Bible says that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” and Moses writes in Deuteronomy that the false prophet who speaks his own words in God’s name—even if he is a miracle worker—is to be put to death for he has led a rebellion against God.
This is how the Lord regards false prophets—as destroyers and deceivers of his people—as rebels against his rule—and his judgment is that they should suffer the fires of hell because of their lies that lead men away from God and destroy their souls. 
And so it is not just the false prophets who will be subject to the fires of hell—it is also those who listen to them and believe their lies. 
Jesus says to all who would follow him:  you WILL recognize them by their fruits.  Whether it is because of moral laziness or doctrinal laxity, the Lord will not excuse those pew sitters who listen to-and believe-false prophets.  Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
            Jesus tells us plainly that every person won’t go to heaven.  Not every person who uses religious words or does religious works is going to heaven.  The fact of the matter is, not even every person who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
            And so who can be confident about going to heaven?  Who is the person who can be absolutely certain that they have a place in God’s kingdom?  Jesus says it is the person who does the will of his heavenly Father.  And what is his heavenly Father’s will? 
As Jesus travelled up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles the crowd of pilgrims asked him:  “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?  And Jesus answered them, “THIS is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  He went on to tell them:  “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him, should have eternal life.”
The will of the Father in heaven for you—the way that leads to eternal life—is to believe in Jesus—to trust that his death and resurrection is the way to heaven—that his righteousness counts in God’s sight for your salvation. 
That is the only way of salvation and those who trust in Jesus have nothing to fear-- but those who have listened to the lies of false prophets—those who do not believe in Jesus—those who do not do the Father’s will--will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus said:
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
            These people who are cast into the eternal fires of hell are people who thought they knew God.  They used religious sounding words and they did religious seeming works. 
When they discover that they are headed for hell rather than heaven you could knock them over with a feather so completely have they been deceived about what life with God is all about.   
            We should take this warning from Jesus to heart! 
We live in a religiously pluralistic culture where we are told that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you believe, and that way of thinking has infiltrated the church. 
We live in a time and place where the truth is considered relative rather than objective so that even in the church people are embarrassed to take up the Bible and say “this is what God’s Word teaches and if you believe differently you are mistaken and if you teach others differently you are misleading them.”
Jesus calls us to resist these cultural forces and the lies of false prophets with all our might and do the will of the heavenly Father by looking to Jesus and believing in him as our one and only Savior from eternal death in hell. 

It is only these who can be certain that they have a place in the kingdom of heaven.  Amen.