March 17, 2019

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Mar 212019
 

Matthew 15:21-28

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  I invite you to open your Bibles or service folders to our Gospel lesson today as Jesus highlights the great faith of the Canaanite woman.

  If you were looking for examples of great faith during the ministry of Jesus where would you expect to find them? Certainly you might expect that you would find them among those who heard God’s word regularly, among Jewish people who were faithful in their Synagogue attendance. And we do have the examples of Simeon and Anna who were devout and were enabled to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah even though he was still an infant. But then there are the Jewish religious leaders, the best of whom might be Nicodemus who was afraid to let anyone know that he thought Jesus might be the messiah. In Nazareth, after his visit to his hometown synagogue, Jesus said that he was amazed at their lack of faith. What about the Disciples? Yes, there were times when they demonstrated great faith, but how often didn’t Jesus point out that they had little faith!

  As you study the gospels, Jesus calls attention to a person’s great faith only twice. And both times the person he says has great faith is a gentile! The centurion of whom he said that he had not found such great faith even in Israel, and this Canaanite woman.

  This doesn’t mean that there weren’t many in Israel who had great faith. God’s promise holds true that his word won’t return empty. Those who regularly heard the word like Simeon and Anna, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus did demonstrate great faith. But Jesus purposely calls attention to the fact that great faith is also found in unlikely places.

  We have seen that in the case of the Hmong Fellowship Church in Vietnam. If you are my age or older, when you think of Vietnam you think of war and riots and civil disobedience. It wasn’t a good time in our nation and almost everyone wondered what good could possibly come from that war. But who knows how the seed of the word was planted in the midst of war and turmoil? Who would ever expect to have so many people hungry for the gospel and eager to learn God’s word? It’s just like Jesus and his disciples meeting this Canaanite woman, a descendant of idol worshipers who were supposed to have been wiped out by Israel when they took over the Promised Land. You wouldn’t expect her even to know about the promise of the Messiah, much less to believe it, and then be able to identify Jesus as that Messiah, but she did. She cried out to him, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! 

  The fact that great faith is found in unlikely places then and now fills us with joy and hope. We rejoice with the angels when we hear about just one person, especially one that lives in a place where there is no easy access to the Gospel, hears the Gospel and confesses their faith in Jesus. It gives us hope that many more will be with us in heaven than there might seem to be just from outward appearances. But it also can put us to shame.

   Why would Jesus say of a gentile centurion that his faith was greater than anyone he had found in Israel? It was a call to repentance. We know from experience that something that is common and easily accessible is easy to take for granted. Israel had more access to God’s word than anyone else on earth, but they took it for granted. And statistics show that so do we. Even in our Synod over half those who promised to be faithful to God and his word at their confirmation are missing in worship because something was more important than God and his word that day. I’ll never forget a comment made by one of our world missionaries who had taught at various levels including MLC and was then teaching overseas in the world mission field. His comment was about how much he enjoyed teaching where the students didn’t take God’s word for granted like most he had taught in the USA. The student overseas, who had not been raised as Christians, were always eager to learn and study the word. We need to realize and confess that we often take what we have for granted. We need to let joy of forgiveness in Jesus move to devote ourselves to the word, to crave the word like babies crave milk.

  When the Canaanite woman approached Jesus he knew right away that she had great faith. He knows what’s in our hearts. But it seems he wants to make sure that his disciples see her faith, that we see it. How does that happen since we can’t see faith in someone’s heart the way Jesus does? Great faith shows itself when tested.

  In response to her first request for mercy, Jesus seemed to ignore her. He didn’t answer. But she showed great faith by continuing to call on him for help to the point that the disciples ask him to do something. They were obviously annoyed by her. It’s difficult to tell if send her away meant, just tell her “no” so that she goes away, or grant her request so that she stops asking and goes away. It seems that they were asking Jesus to grant her request because Jesus speaks to them. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

  Certainly the woman heard in those words that Jesus wasn’t, that he couldn’t do what she was asking. It was outside of his mission. He had come to save the lost of Israel and she was not of Israel. And the disciples were certainly tempted to agree. They had been raised in a culture that thought that way. And Jesus had sent them on a mission trip and told them only to go to Israel. But instead of giving up this woman doubled down. She came and knelt in front of him, saying, “Lord, help me.

  Doesn’t your heart go out to her? I’m sure the hearts of most of the disciples did. And there are many times in the Gospels where Jesus sees people in need physically or spiritually and we are told that his heart went out to them, he was deeply moved. Surely you would think that would be the case as this woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, bowed in worship before him, obviously trusting that he had the power to help, calling him Lord and Son of David, humbly begging for mercy and help. But no. Jesus continued with the theme that he was sent only to Israel. He answered her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

  If it were you, if I were this woman-  well I’m guessing all of us would have either collapsed in tears, or gone off in anger that Jesus would seem to be such a prejudiced bigot. But, in faith, she was enabled to keep her wits about her. In faith she still considered Jesus Lord. In faith she realized that the dogs that Jesus was talking about were not wild dogs, but pet dogs who were allowed in the house. In faith she was happy to receive whatever crumb Jesus was willing to give her. Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet the dogs also eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus held her up to the disciples and to us as an example of great faith and granted her request.

  What is great faith? First and most importantly the object of great faith is Jesus. It’s not how strong we think our faith is. It’s not how much we fast or how diligent we are in prayer. It’s trusting that Jesus is able to do anything we ask and that the only reason we can ask is because he has washed away our sins and covered us with his righteousness.

  What was great about this woman’s faith was that she stayed focused on Jesus in the midst of testing. She didn’t let comments like those she surely had heard from many others about God being the God of Israel only distract her from focusing on Jesus. She didn’t demand he do what she was asking, or list things she had done that she thought had earned her a favor from Jesus, she literally threw herself at his feet and humbly asked for mercy and help. 

  When Jesus, through testing, had let the fruits of her faith show so that we and the disciples could see them- wisdom, humility, meekness, patience, perseverance- he granted her request without even seeing or touching her daughter. When this woman got home, likely running all the way, the demon was gone. Her daughter was no longer possessed.

  Great faith can be found wherever people can come in contact with God’s powerful word and hear the good news that Jesus is the Son of David who came to earth and defeated sin, death and Satan by his perfect life, innocent death in our place, and his glorious resurrection. When the word reaches unlikely places like Vietnam, or an inner city ghetto, or an isolated village in a third world country, instead of looking down on them or wondering how those people could have faith in Jesus we want to rejoice with them.

 Great faith comes only when the faith that the Holy Spirit has planted in a person’s heart is fed and nourished regularly by the gospel in word and sacrament. Great faith is only evident when it is put to the test and has opportunity to show itself. We can’t see faith, but we can see the fruit it produces- humility, patience, perseverance, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. When you see these fruits in your fellow Christians, tell them that you thank God for the faith God has given them. Let it be an encouragement for you to make constant use of the word and sacrament so that your faith continues to grow stronger and stronger until Jesus returns in glory or calls you home to heaven.

March 10, 2019 Sermon

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Mar 102019
 

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Matthew 4:1-11

We focus our attention this morning on the temptation of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 4 which is printed in your folders, or you may wish to follow along in your Bibles.

 

Shortly after Jesus’ baptism where it was made public that he was the Son of God who had come to save the world, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. It was Game On. Satan’s time was short. Jesus was now a public figure. He would be preaching and teaching and working to destroy the devil’s power. It was a “game” of epic proportions, greater than the battle between David and Goliath which meant victory for the whole country of the victor and defeat for the whole country of the loser. The fate of the whole of mankind lay in the balance. Jesus had volunteered to be our David. He was going into the wilderness to be tempted as the representative of every person who ever was or ever will be born. If he were to give in to just one temptation we would all be Satan’s slaves, suffering the torments of Hell for all eternity. It was time for Jesus to do battle with Satan head on, one on one.

Did you notice that the first temptation that Matthew mentions has to do with food? That’s interesting because the fall into sin had to do with food. Adam and Eve had plenty of food. Everything in the garden was theirs to eat, provided for them for free by God, except for the one tree. It’s interesting that God used hunger and the provision of Manna as a way to test his people in the desert to see if they would trust him and his word. Both Adam and Eve and Israel in the desert failed to trust God and his word. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit even though they certainly weren’t hungry. Israel complained that they were hungry and when God provided perfect food for free they ignored his instructions not to hoard it, and later complained that it was boring food. Now Jesus, our hero who went out to battle the Devil in our place, feels the pangs of hunger more than any of us ever have. And, as he usually does, Satan attacks at the weakest point.

Food, trusting God to provide our daily bread, is still a weak point for us. We may give in to the temptation to hoard it, or the money to buy it. We may give in to the temptation to gorge ourselves on it, or to waste it, or complain about what we have. So often we fail the test; we fail to just do our work faithfully and trust God’s promise to provide; we fail to give thanks to him and appreciate the daily bread that he does provide; we often make food and striving to earn our daily bread more important than God and his word.

How did Jesus fare as our substitute who had not eaten for 40 days – imagine that, 40 days of fasting! And it wasn’t just the hunger. Did you hear the challenge? If you really are the son of God prove it! That’s always a difficult temptation to resist for us- How many of us have given in to the challenge to prove something because we don’t want to be called a chicken, or to look foolish? “And what would be so bad about satisfying your hunger, Jesus? Isn’t that reason God gives food, to satisfy our hunger? God certainly doesn’t want you to starve to death.”

How did Jesus fare? Jesus answered, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” He quoted what God said he wanted Israel to learn when he let them grow hungry and then provided them with Manna one day at a time. He showed that he intended to do the opposite of Adam and Eve, to obey the Father regardless of what might be gained by eating.

Game On. Round 1, Jesus is victorious in our place resisting the desire to satisfy his physical needs at the expense of God’s commands. But Satan is not easily defeated. He is immediately ready with the next round of temptation. He says, “Ok, Jesus. You want to quote the Scriptures? I can do that too. You say that you are going to trust the Father and live by the words that come from him? Well, doesn’t he say He will command his angels concerning you. And they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone? So, if you trust him and his promises, take a dive off of this tower and nothing bad should happen to you. Let’s see if the Father comes through on his promise.”

Satan sure lives up to his reputation as a deceiver. He is ever so skillful at twisting things that God has said. God says “all your sins are already paid for in Jesus.” And Satan says, “so sin all you want.” God says “I will provide for all your needs.” And Satan says, “so why work, just let God find a way to provide.” God says that he is love and we are to love our neighbor. Satan says, therefore you can never call anything sinful, and you can love whomever you want. God says his angels are watching over you. Satan says drive as fast as you want, ignore the weather or the speed limit, trust that God won’t let anything bad happen as a result.

How often we fall for Satan’s tricks, deceptions and half-truths like Adam and Eve in the garden. When they ate the forbidden fruit they came to know good and evil, but that was not the good thing that Satan pictured it to be. It didn’t make them like God. They became their own god. It made them like him.

How did Jesus fare? Jesus said to him, Again, it is written: You shall not test the Lord your God. Jesus teaches us how to see through and to resist Satan’s twisting of Scripture. We have summarized what Jesus teaches us here with the principle, “Let Scripture interpret Scripture.” God does promise to give his angels charge over us and they are constantly protecting us from many dangers seen and unseen. But God also warns us against testing him; purposely putting ourselves in danger to see if he will keep his promise. When people responded to Paul’s gospel proclamation that Jesus has already paid for every sin by saying, then we can sin all we want, Paul said, “God forbid that you would think that way and use God’s grace as an excuse to sin. In your baptism you were united with Jesus in his death, you died to sin, how could you even think of continuing to live in sin?” God is love and we are to love our neighbor, but Scripture says that one of the most loving things you can do is to use the law and the gospel to turn someone away from doing what God says is sinful and rescue them from spending an eternity with Satan.

Game on. Jesus, continuing to live by EVERY word the comes from the mouth of God, not just picking and choosing, is victorious for us when Satan tries to twist God’s word. But Satan continues to fight.

“So, Jesus, you are the son of God, the one who has come to earth to establish the kingdom of God. I can help you with that. I can make it real easy for you, no suffering, no cross, no beating, no pain. Just bow down and worship me and I will convince every king and every nation to accept you and shower you with riches and glory the likes of which no other human has ever known. Then you will be able to make all nations bow before you. Isn’t that what you came for anyway?”

We might not think that this is a very strong temptation until we look in the mirror. How often aren’t we theologians of glory instead of theologians of the cross? How often don’t we think that if we just would have this program, or if we just didn’t talk so much about the Commandments of God, then our churches would grow. Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t more people be saved then? Or, how many haven’t been misled to think that if only we could get the right politicians in power and pass the right laws then God’s kingdom would grow and we would be a Christian nation again. Don’t you hear Satan suggesting that the end justifies the means? The way of establishing God’s kingdom was the way of the cross and suffering for Jesus. The means that God has given to continue to establish his kingdom is not political power or compromising his commands. The means that God has given are the Gospel in his word and sacraments. It is through these that he works in hearts which often doesn’t seem to us to be working because we grow impatient as we focus on the outward instead of the inward. But the Kingdom of God is within you, Jesus says. His kingdom is not of this world. Success in his eyes is not measured by how big your building is, or how closely your laws reflect the Commandments. Success in his eyes is how many are brought to trust in him alone for salvation. Laws can’t ever create faith, only the Gospel can. And where there is faith, fruits of faith will follow.

Game on. How did Jesus fare against this temptation to take the easy road and let the end justify the means? Jesus said, it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ And the devil left him and the angels did come and minister to his needs.

Jesus was victorious over these temptations, not just for himself, but as our substitute. But Satan wasn’t finished tempting Jesus. He would continue to tempt Jesus through the opposition of the Religious leaders, through questions cleverly devised to trap him, through betrayal and denial by his closest friends, through mocking and pain and suffering beyond what we can imagine. But the writer to the Hebrews declares that he remained without sin. And if we want absolute proof, look to Easter. He rose from the dead to declare his victory over sin, death and Satan. He won the victory not for himself, but for you and for me.

Game On. In Jesus, Game Won.

Three Words of Truth – I Am He

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Mar 072019
 

John 18:3-9

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Dear Friends in Christ,

I was at a movie many years ago, a Star Trek movie, where one guy was really absorbed in the action. At the climax of the movie, when the crew of the Enterprise figures out how to make a photon torpedo find an invisible enemy ship and that enemy ship is destroyed he couldn’t help himself. He shouted “YES!” and began to cheer.

When I was young, when this portion of the passion history was read; when the mob says that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus replies “I Am HE”, and they all fall down as if knocked over by an invisible bowling ball, I would think “YES! Jesus, show them who’s in charge.”  It’s a wonderful section of the Passion History. It’s like a bright light shining in what is otherwise a very dark story.

Jesus says, “I Am He”. If you are familiar with John’s Gospel that should ring a bell. Seven times John records an “I AM” statement of Jesus. I am the bread of life; the gate; the good shepherd; the light of the world; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life; and the true vine. But the most telling of all the I am statements of Jesus is this, before Abraham was born, I AM. It was obvious to all who heard him that he was claiming to be God, the one and only true God who always has and always will exist, the only being who can simply say “I AM”.

The mob was looking for Jesus of Nazareth. They knew he was powerful in word and deed. They knew about the times he had escaped the grasp of those who had wanted to stone him or to throw him off a cliff. They came prepared with lanterns and weapons and even some mighty Roman soldiers. But Jesus makes it clear by word and deed that he is not who they think he is. He is not just a lowly carpenter’s son from Nazareth. The power of those three words of truth, I AM HE, knocks them to the ground. He is God, equal with the Father from eternity.

Don’t you get it guys? Don’t you get it Judas? Don’t you see who this is? Jesus is the great I AM come to earth in the flesh! If being knocked over by an unarmed man simply by the power of his words doesn’t get your attention, he is about to heal the ear of one of his enemies that Peter foolishly cut off. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Word become flesh, the savior! But they don’t see it. Even after being knocked over by the power of his statement “I AM HE” they are determined to arrest him.

We like to think, “How foolish these people were that they didn’t see who Jesus was; that they could think that they were the ones in charge, that they had the power.” But we often do the same thing. We often go about our lives thinking that we are the ones in charge. We sometimes think that we can oppose God, or at least ignore his word. Sometimes, when we think that way, he may let us get knocked flat on our backs the way he did this mob of men to get our attention. He wants to remind us that we aren’t the ones in control, that we can’t oppose him and his will forever. All he has to do is speak a word to make it very evident that he is in control, not us.

By saying “I AM HE” and having the power of his words knock the whole mob to the ground, Jesus was letting them know who he really is. He is true God, one with the Father from eternity, the promised Messiah. He was giving them something to think about, planting a seed that he Holy Spirit may have used later to bring some who had come to arrest him to faith. But there was another reason Jesus displayed his power in this way. It was out of concern for his disciples.

After those who had been knocked over got back up and regained their composure Jesus asked again, who is it you want? When they replied, Jesus of Nazareth, he again said “I AM HE”, but then he added, If you are looking for me, then let these men go.

Amazing, isn’t it? The unarmed man, the one they came with weapons to arrest, the one who was greatly outnumbered, is the one giving the orders. And they obey! When the disciples ran, not one from the mob gave chase. None of the disciples were arrested, not even Peter who had pulled a sword. Jesus made sure that they were kept safe. He would not allow any that the father had given him to be lost.

Jesus cares for us the same way he cared for the disciples. Like the disciples we are weak. We give in to temptation. We fail to watch and pray. There is no reason he should want to protect us, but he does. In his grace he makes sure that he always provides a way out of temptation for us. In his grace he often keeps things from happening that he knows would be too difficult for us to bear. He knew that the disciples were not at a point in their faith that they could endure being arrested so he made sure that they were allowed to go free. Later, many were arrested, but at a point in their lives when their faith had grown and being arrested didn’t cause them to give up their faith. They probably didn’t even realize what Jesus had done for them that night in the garden until much later. And that’s often the way it is for us too. We look back on our life and think, “wow, that situation I was in could have been much worse, and if it had been I don’t know if I could have kept the faith. The Lord saw to it that it wasn’t something that I couldn’t bear with his help.” He makes sure that none the Father has given him are lost.

By saying ‘I AM HE” and causing the mob to be knocked to the ground, Jesus made sure that all the attention was focused on him. He made it clear that he was in charge. He could have easily escaped if he had wanted to do so. But the one who is I AM, the one who made and rules the universe, chose to take on human flesh so that he could be arrested. He willingly gave himself up knowing in advance everything that was going to happen to him. That knowledge had minutes before caused him to sweat blood as he wrestled in prayer. The Father had answered his prayer. “It is my will that you be arrested, beaten, treated as a criminal and be nailed to the cross. This is the only way that I can be a just and holy God, and yet forgive sin. You, my perfect son whom I love, with whom I am well pleased, are able to bear the sins of the whole world because you have none of your own. You will display for all to see how loving and gracious I am because you will suffer and die for those who hate me.” Jesus had said, “Thy will be done.” He didn’t run. He didn’t try to hide. He went out to meet the mob and said, “Here I am. I am the one you want. Take me.”

Jesus still wants the attention focused on him. Judas was focused on himself and so he gave in to greed and was led to betray Jesus for money. Peter and the others were focused on themselves, on their own safety, on their own fears, so they forsook Jesus and ran. Anytime we focus on ourselves we too will fall into sin in one way or another. Focusing on ourselves may lead us to cheat or steal because we don’t think we have what we need. Focusing on ourselves may lead us to lie about others to try to keep a friend or to get ourselves out of trouble. Focusing on ourselves may get us to run away from helping those in need, and even from Jesus, denying that we know him, in order to keep from suffering ridicule or persecution.

When we realize that we have focused on ourselves and fallen into sin Jesus reminds us to focus on him again. He calls us to remember what he did in the garden. Even though he knew everything that was going to happen to him he willingly gave himself up for Judas who betrayed him, for Peter and the others who forsook him, for you and for me who all too often only think of ourselves and should be the ones who suffer for our sins. He willingly gave himself up so that the Father could punish him for the times that we thought only of ourselves and fell into sin. He says to us, “I AM HE.” I am he, the eternal God who set aside the glory of heaven so that I could come to earth to save you. I am he, the one who uses my power as God to protect you. I am he, the one who willingly allowed myself to be arrested, condemned and crucified so that I could take on the punishment you deserved for your sins.

When you hear this portion of the passion history, and like me, you are tempted to think, “YES Jesus, you show them who’s in charge”, remember that he wasn’t just displaying his power as God. He was willingly offering himself up in our place so that we might be free for all eternity. When you hear Jesus say “I AM HE” think, “YES Jesus! Thank you for taking my place. Thank you for being willing to offer yourself for my sins. Thank you for being my Savior.”

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