December 6, 2018 Advent

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Dec 062018
 

(Audio version not available)

Luke 19:1-10

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

What’s Christmas all about? You might think that everyone knows the answer, but they don’t. You can tell by watching the news, or the holiday movies. From those sources you would think that Christmas is all about love and peace, and family, and giving or getting just the right gift. It’s all about children, some people say- seeing their eyes light up as they open their gifts. From our own experience we might think that it’s all about cookies and decorated trees and lights, and having so much to get done that you might wish it wasn’t Christmas, or that it would hurry up and be over so you can get back to a normal schedule.

There are myriad things that distract us from focusing on what Christmas is all about. In fact, many who claim to be Christians end up missing the true meaning of Christmas. Now the Biblical account of Zacchaeus the tax collector might not be the first Scripture that comes to mind to remind us what Christmas is all about, but, as you will see, it does a very good job of doing just that.

The Bible tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, not just an ordinary tax collector. He was a chief tax collector and a very wealthy one at that. People would look at him and, whether it was true or not, think that he must be a traitor and a cheat because he worked for the Romans and he was rich. We hear that attitude today when it is assumed, whether it’s true or not, that any rich person must have cheated or abused people to get what they have.

Surprisingly, Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. Obviously he had heard about Jesus. He had heard about his miracles. He had heard that he taught with authority. Maybe he had even heard that one of his disciples, Matthew, was a former Tax Collector. He wanted to see who this person was that he was getting so much attention, and yet was willing to associate with those the Pharisees considered sinners. In fact, he was so determined to see Jesus that he gave up trying to peek through the crowd to get a glimpse of him, that he ran down the road and climbed up into a tree.

Was Zacchaeus like King Herod, only interested in seeing Jesus perform a miracle for his entertainment? His words and actions would tell us, “no.” It seems that his conscience had been at work. Deep down he knew people were right when they called him a sinner. He probably didn’t even know why, but his determination to see Jesus, even being willing to do something that would make people laugh at him, like climbing a tree, shows that he must have thought just being able to see Jesus would somehow help salve his conscience.

One of the things the Advent season is designed to do is to move us to think like Zacchaeus. One of the key figures of Advent is John the Baptist with his call to repentance. His preaching of the law pricks our consciences. He warns us not to trust in ourselves or our heritage. Just because you go to church, or a Christian school; just because you have been Lutheran all your life, doesn’t save you. The advent season reminds us that if we are going to be prepared for Jesus’ coming; if we are going to understand what Christmas is all about; we must first understand that we are sinners who are completely lost. Left to ourselves we would end up being goats on the left hand of Jesus in the judgment. We would hear the terrifying words, depart from me you who are cursed. If we are to experience the real joy of Christmas, we need to have a longing, a deep desire like Zacchaeus did, to see Jesus.

It all turned out better that Zacchaeus could have imagined. He just wanted to see Jesus with his own eyes. But, when Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

How amazing! Remember, the crowd was so large that Zacchaeus couldn’t find a spot anywhere that he could see over, around or through. Imagine the noise and commotion! How likely was it that Jesus would even look his way or notice him? But he not only noticed him, he walked over to the tree and addressed him by name! How did he know his name! They had never met! And what else did Jesus say? I MUST stay at your house today! It was necessary, it was the will of God, part of his plan, that Jesus meet Zacchaeus and spend time at his house.

At my first church in Milwaukee our church president was also a great evangelist. He would purposely ride the public bus to work so that he could talk to strangers and tell them about Jesus. Whenever he had the chance to do this, on the bus, or making calls in the neighborhood, he would tell whomever he was talking to that their meeting wasn’t by accident. It was part of God’s plan that they were talking because God knew that they needed to hear that Jesus was their savior. I don’t know if anyone joined the church because of his witnessing, but I’m sure many people were comforted, and some are probably in heaven with him because he took the time and made the effort to witness to them. He felt it was necessary for him to stop at their home, or sit next to them on the bus, because they needed to see Jesus.

Zacchaeus was overjoyed that Jesus was coming to his house, but others weren’t. They began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” They thought that Jesus was defiling himself. After all, Zacchaeus worked for the Romans, the gentiles, so by his contact with them, he was defiled. A faithful Jew would never go into the home of such a person.

Some of you might remember having Catholic friends who were forbidden to enter your house because you were Lutheran. You could play outside together, but they couldn’t come into the house. Or you might remember that Peter was called before the elders of the church because he had entered into the house of the gentile Cornelius. It’s true, the Bible tells us to stay away from false teachers; but it never tells us to avoid those who have done something sinful. If that were the case you would have to avoid yourself. Jesus spoke out against and avoided those who promoted false teaching, but those same false teachers often grumbled against him and tried to discredit him for speaking with and eating with those they considered “sinners”.

I often wonder where we would stand on this issue if we had lived at that time. Are we more likely to stand with those who accused Jesus of hanging out with sinners, or are we more likely to stand with Jesus who was often seen talking and even eating with sinners? I wonder how often we shy away from “those people” and say, or think, “those people would never listen or come to church.” And, if they did, how would we treat them?

We learn why Jesus needed to go to the house of Zacchaeus that day. At some point during Jesus’ visit, Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Zacchaeus did what John the Baptist had called on the people to do. He produced fruit in keeping with repentance. He did something that showed where his heart was. He showed that his heart was not set on his wealth. He was willing to give a large portion of it away. And he demonstrated repentance for knowingly or unknowingly cheating anyone by willingly making restitution. Jesus didn’t require that he do these things, but he was so filled with thankfulness that Jesus would come to his house he was moved to do these things gladly and willingly. In Jesus he had found the peace he was looking for, the cure for his troubled conscience- he now saw who Jesus really is, the Savior who forgives sins and removes guilt.

  Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” I don’t think we can appreciate what an unprecedented statement this was. It would be like Jesus saying to Nancy Pelosi or Maxine Waters, “President Trump is my friend.” How could this chief tax collector, this traitor, who was despised by almost everyone, be considered a son of Abraham? How could Jesus say that he was saved! That’s what being a son of Abraham means.

As Paul reminds us, not all who are descendants of Abraham are considered children of Abraham by God. Only those who share the faith of Abraham are true children of Abraham. Jesus was saying that Zacchaeus believed God’s promise of a savior. He believed that he, Jesus, was the fulfillment of that promise. And through faith, righteousness was credited to him, just as it was to Abraham.

Jesus’ last statement teaches us what Christmas is all about. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. He didn’t come to call the righteous, like those who were grumbling that he went into the house of a sinner. He came to call sinners, those who feel the weight of their sin, those who know they are in trouble with God and can’t help themselves; those who, like Zacchaeus, want to see Jesus because they are hoping against hope that he has the answer for their guilt. Jesus came to seek us out by becoming one of us. He pictures himself for us as the good shepherd who goes after even one lost sheep and doesn’t give up until he finds it.  He came to save. He came to fulfill God’s law in our place. He came so that he could take on himself the punishment we deserve for our sins. He came to save the lost, and we are all, by nature, lost and condemned creatures.

If you want to truly celebrate Christmas, you don’t need gifts or a tree, or lights. You don’t have to get together with lots of family. If you truly want to celebrate Christmas, like Zacchaeus, recognize that you are a sinner who needs to be saved. Then, look in the manger and remember why Jesus came. He came to seek and to save the lost. He came to seek and to save you.

December 2, 2018

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Dec 022018
 

Click HERE for an audio podcast of this message.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

 

Is the glass half full or half empty? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? It might seem that it’s getting harder and harder to be an optimist. Every day we hear about horrible crimes. It seems like people are constantly arguing and fighting with each other. The very fabric of society seems like it’s being torn apart. What hope is there for the future?

If we focus on the things that we see and hear on the news the answer would probably be, “there isn’t much hope.” But, as Christians who know what God has done in the past and what he promises to do in the future, we know that there is always reason to have hope.

If we think we have it bad with little hope for improvement in the future, consider what it was like for Jeremiah and the people living in Jerusalem with him.  They were stuck between two great rival powers, Babylon and Egypt. Their leaders had sided with Egypt, but Egypt was defeated by Babylon. As a result, Judah became subject to Babylon. When they tried to rebel, the Babylonians came and enforced their dominance, carrying off kings and princes, including Daniel, to Babylon. Now Judah was trying to rebel again. This was the last straw for Babylon. They came and laid siege to the city intending to destroy it. God’s message through Jeremiah didn’t seem to give much hope at first. Through Jeremiah, God said that he was going to allow the Babylonians to destroy the city, and even his temple, and take the survivors captive.

Things looked pretty bleak. But in the midst of what looked hopeless God gives a message of hope. ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.’  In the midst of destruction, death and captivity, there was hope because God confirmed his promise, a good promise, a promise that there would be descendants of Abraham and David who would survive and who would inhabit Jerusalem, at least until the coming of the promised savior. This destruction, death and captivity would come to an end. “The days are coming, good days are coming,” says the Lord.

    You can imagine that, considering the circumstances, there would be a lot of people who just shook their heads and refused to believe the word of God through Jeremiah. But we have the blessing of being able to review history.  We know that God did allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed, and the survivors to be taken as captives to Babylon. But we also know that God’s good promise was also fulfilled. After seventy years of captivity, just as God had promised through Jeremiah, any Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple had the decree and financial support of king Cyrus. When you are able to look back and see how God kept all of his promises in the past, you have reason to hope. It gives you confidence that he will continue to keep his promises.

If you have been through a difficult time in your life; if things didn’t go as planned; if you are facing a sickness or a disability; if people that you were counting on didn’t keep their promises; if you suffered financial or personal loss; it’s difficult to have hope. Well-meaning friends who don’t seem to have any troubles in their lives try to remind you that God is working in everything for your good. But when your life is a mess, it’s hard to believe those words and to have hope. Maybe it’s not until you realize that this life on earth isn’t all there is and that the things of this world can’t make you happy that you are ready to have what is true hope.

When the people of Judah had no earthly thing left, it was all destroyed, and they were being taken as captives to a foreign land, God reminded them where true hope comes from. He tells them, In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called:  The Lord Our Righteous Savior. True hope comes from God’s promise of a savior.

By God’s grace, we know the fulfillment of this promise. We are preparing to celebrate it. Jesus, according to his human nature, was a sprout from David’s line. The gospels provide his genealogy for us. But unlike David, or any other earthly ruler, Jesus was a righteous branch. He always did what is just and right. Conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, he was born without sin. Tempted in every way, just as we are, he lived his whole life without ever sinning, not even once. He is the spotless lamb of God in whom the Father is well-pleased. And the most important thing about that is, he is the Lord our Righteous Savior. He is considered by God to be our righteousness. His sinless life is accepted by God in place of our sinful lives. If you need proof, Paul says, he was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.  His resurrection is proof positive that God has accepted him as our righteousness, as the one who paid for all our sins in full.

Knowing that God kept his promise to those living in Judah at the time of Jeremiah; that he did bring them back to Jerusalem, and that he continued to keep his good promise because Jesus was born as a descendant of David, who lived and died and rose again, gives true hope. It makes us think like Abraham, who when God promised things that seemed impossible, considered the source. This is not some mere human making promises. This is not someone with limited power, or resources who is making promises. This is God Almighty. There is nothing he can’t do. There is no one who can keep him from doing what he has promised. And since he is holy, he cannot lie. When he promises, it’s as good as done.

Because God’s promises are trustworthy, we have the sure and certain hope of heaven. When we face sickness, disease, disability; when our bodies are wearing out and there is no earthly cure; we still have hope. With Paul we say, for me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.    And with Peter who says, Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you

Because God’s promises are trustworthy, we also have hope as we live each day in this troubled world. God has promised to be with us always to the end of the age. He has promised never will I leave you, never will I forsake you. Even though you don’t want to hear it when things seem to be falling apart all around you, God promises he is using everything for your good. Remember Joseph. I’m sure there were times when he felt hopeless as he lay beaten and bloody in a pit, wondering if his brothers were going to come back and finish him off; and when he was sold as a slave; and when Potiphar’s wife lied about him; and when Pharaoh’s cupbearer forgot about him and he continued to be held in jail under a false accusation. But years later, when his brothers thought he might take revenge on them, he was able to say, you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. And Peter reminds us of Noah and his family, and Lot, and says, the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. That’s what he has always done and what he promises he will always do. He promises to walk with you through every good time and bad, through every triumph and tribulation; and, when the time is right, to take you to be with him forever.

Is this world a mess? You bet. Do we contribute to the mess? Yes, because of our sins. Is there any reason to have hope? Plenty. When you remember what God has done, when you see what he is doing in your life, when you hear his promises for the future and remember that not one of his promises has ever failed; when you remember he sent Jesus, the branch of David to be your righteous Savior, then you will have hope for today, tomorrow and forever.

November 25, 2018

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Nov 252018
 

No audio this week as church was cancelled due to the blizzard.

 

Matthew 25:31-33

Dear Friends in Christ,

 

The old WELS Evangelism training booklet, “Talk about the Savior” borrowed a lot from D James Kennedy’s “Evangelism Explosion.” They encouraged the use of two key questions, after talking about the weather, or sports, or whatever the comfortable topic might be. You have probably heard or learned those questions. The first is, “If you died tonight do you know for sure where you would be?” And, especially if they answered, “I hope I would be in heaven,” the second question is; “If God asked you why he should let you into heaven what would you say?”

Those two questions tell you a lot about what a person believes. Once in a while someone would answer, “I don’t know where I would be,” or even more rarely, “I would be in Hell.” But, most of the time people will answer, “I hope I’ll be in heaven.” But they weren’t sure where they would be.

The second question reveals the reason for their first answer. The most common answer to the question about what reason they would offer that they should be accepted into heaven is, “I try to do my best.” “I think I do better than most. At least I haven’t killed anyone.” And a generation ago they often added that they hadn’t been sexually immoral, but almost no one makes that claim anymore.

As Jesus describes the last day and his coming again in glory we are forced to ask similar questions. If Jesus were to return right now, and he very well could, do you know where you would stand? Would you be a sheep or a goat? Would you be on the right or the left? Are you sure? If not, why aren’t you sure?

As we have seen over the past few weeks, through our study of the Last Days, the return of Jesus and the end of the world as we know it is not an “if”, it’s “when.” Jesus says, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered in his presence. This is something that is going to happen. And when it does, all the nations will be gathered before him. No matter what you believed, no matter how much you denied the resurrection and proclaimed that death is the end, no matter what you tried to do thinking that God couldn’t raise you, like having your ashes scattered over the seven seas, no one will escape. Everyone will appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Now, that second question is a little misleading because it implies that God might ask you a question and based on your answer you will be a sheep or a goat, on the right or on the left. We use that question to lead a person confess what they believe. But, when the last day comes no questions will be asked. God already knows what you believe, and based on his perfect knowledge of what is in your heart he will separate the sheep and the goats, and he will place you on the proper side, the right or the left. No questions need to be asked. No defense is allowed. The verdict is final. The only thing we hear those on either side saying is their response to the sentence that has been decreed for them. It is that response that gives evidence of what was in their hearts and why they are where they are.

As Jesus speaks to the goats on his left and decrees that they will spend eternity separated from him in the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels, they seem surprised. Jesus explains, I was hungry and you did not give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, lacking clothes and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not take care of me. In amazement they declare, when didn’t we do these things? In other words, “we were good people. We tried our best to do the right thing. We volunteered at the homeless shelter. We demonstrated against injustice. We took meals to our sick neighbors. We did a lot more to help the helpless than most people we know. How can you say we didn’t?

What was Jesus’ answer? Amen I tell you: Just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me. There’s the clue. “You didn’t do it for me. You did it for yourself. You did it for those you thought would repay you, or because you thought you would be repaid either by 15 minutes of earthly fame, or by earning credit from God to cancel out some of your sins, or because you wanted to be able to pat yourself on the back for having done more than others. Your actions might have been outwardly good and praised by people, but they came from your selfish sinful nature, not from faith. You didn’t do it for me. As Paul says, everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Now here’s where it can get a little confusing. Those on the right hear the wonderful verdict that they will get to spend eternity at the wedding feast of the Lamb, in the glorious eternal kingdom prepared for them by God that we heard described in our readings from  Isaiah and Revelation today. As they hear the reason for the verdict they have received, they too seem surprised. Jesus says, I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was lacking clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ And their response is “when did we do these things?”

Their response shows their heart, just as the response to the question, “Why should God let you into heaven?” shows your heart.  God can’t lie. They did these things. So how can they be unaware? Were they sleep walking when they did them? No, they were unaware because they didn’t do them for themselves, they did them for Jesus, as a fruit of their faith. They weren’t seeking to be noticed, or to be repaid for what they did by God or by their neighbor. Their new man of faith led them to show love for God and for their neighbor because of the love that God had shown them. The things that they did didn’t earn them anything from God, but God could point to them as evidence of faith because he knew their hearts.

We can’t be sure where someone else will stand on the last day because we don’t know their hearts. Two people may do exactly the same things, care for the homeless, feed the hungry, care for the sick; but one may be doing it for themselves, and the other for Jesus. We can’t tell. The only person we can be sure about is ourselves.

As we look at ourselves in the mirror of the good deeds that Jesus lists, we probably think – “I haven’t done those things, and when I have, I had a least a passing thought that I should get some credit for what I did, so I did them for myself, not for Jesus. I should be a goat, standing on the left of Jesus in the judgment, receiving that horrifying verdict, “Depart from me you cursed.” Yes, even our righteous acts are like filthy rags in the eyes of God. Everything we do is imperfect, tainted by sin.

So then, how can we, how can anyone, be sure that they will be a sheep standing on the right of Jesus in the judgment? Doesn’t Jesus say that his sheep hear his voice? You hear his voice as you hear, read and study the Bible. You hear him say to you in connection with the bread and wine, this was given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. In the word you hear him say, whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. You hear him say, whoever believes in me is not condemned, and Paul proclaims that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Jesus chose to be cursed for us, he took our condemnation on himself, so that there is nothing left for us to suffer. Every sin has been paid for in full. The filthy rags of our righteousness have been cleansed with the blood of Jesus and made pure and white in the sight of God.

How can anyone be sure of where they will stand on the last day? How can you be sure that you will be taken by the angels to his right hand? If you look at yourself you will never be sure. In fact, you will see your failures and imperfections. You will ultimately despair of standing at the right hand in the judgement. But, if you look to Jesus you will be sure. You will see his blood and righteousness cleansing and covering all your sins. You will see forgiveness. You will see grace and mercy. You will learn to say, “I know I don’t deserve to stand at the right hand in the judgement, but by God’s grace, because of Jesus and all he has done for me, I will stand at the right hand, that’s his promise. If I were to be asked why I should be there I know I could not point to anything I did. I could only point to Jesus and say, “Because of what he has done for me.”

Because of Jesus you can be sure of where you will stand in the judgment. Because of Jesus you will be invited to enter the New Jerusalem and live in the place where there is nothing to fear, there is no night, there are no criminals, there is no death or mourning or crying or pain, only joy and peace in the presence of the one who gives light forever.

 

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