Sunday after the Ascension (1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sunday after the Ascension + May 28, 2017

Text: 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11

Just imagine that you are hearing this as a first century Christian, who has witnessed the horror of crucifixion.  It’s how the world knows that criminals are punished.  Now apply that to your faith, that you believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and that He was crucified, died, and buried.  To add one more offense on top of that (in the world’s sight), you believe that He rose from the dead on the third day and that He comes again to judge the world.

 

This is what inspired one man in Rome to scribble a figure of a man with a donkey’s head, nailed to a cross.  At the base of the cross is another figure lifting looking up and lifting his hand in adoration.  The caption reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”[1]

 

It’s with this in mind that St. Peter writes, 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”  Perhaps the sting of what it means to be a follower of Christ is deadened a bit when we don’t have actual crucifixions to look at on a daily basis.  But sharing in Christ’s suffering remains, even if we can’t visualize it.  Because we belong to Christ and are called Christians, we will suffer for that Name.

 

The natural reaction is to balk when people hate Christ and His followers.  We might think of the love and mercy which Jesus displayed toward all people and how He uses us in the world today to do the same.  They say Christianity is an excuse to hate people who think differently than us.  We remember how Jesus welcomed the little children and blessed them.  They say Christianity is a mind control program, and that we’re abusing children by teaching them the faith.  We respect the religious beliefs of Muslims, Jews, and Hindus who wear special clothing or only eat certain foods.  Meanwhile Christians are insulted because their conscience prevents them from supporting same-sex unions.

 

It causes doubts to arise in our mind whether we’re right.  If the whole world says Christians are stupid, hate-filled bigots, maybe they’re right just by popular vote.  But Peter casts our experience in a different light: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”  When your name is dragged through the mud because you’re a Christian, this isn’t anything new.  Your Lord says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”[2]  When He blessed, He was cursed.  When He healed, they wanted to kill Him.  When He taught, they spread lies about His teaching.  But God vindicated the truth of what Jesus said by raising Him from the dead.  Your faith is not in vain, and God witnesses that it is true.

 

With all that stands against Christians, who would remain unless they were a masochist?  Who would choose a religion that is so widely opposed and which causes so much dysphoria with the world?  Peter answers, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”   Even in the insults, you are blessed because you have the Holy Spirit.  He has called you believe in Jesus Christ and it is by His power that you remain in this Christian faith.  It’s really not about your choosing to follow Jesus, so much as it’s about what He’s done and how He called you to follow Him.  “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”[3]

 

There’s the strength and comfort to share in the sufferings of Christ.  To be a Christian is not to hold onto your life with your own strength.  “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”[4]  That’s the paradox, that we let go of our life and “entrust our soul to a faithful Creator while doing good” (v. 19).

 

Just as Peter steered us away from a personal “Why is this happening to me?” pity-party, he also turns our eyes from seeing the struggles in our lives from merely human eyes.  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  Everywhere around us we’re encouraged to seize opportunity and take control of our lives.  That’s a nice delusion that shatters against the reality that our live isn’t really in our own hands as much as we’d like it to be.  Go out and find a job that you can support yourself and your family, and do it today.  That chronic ailment you’ve had, go fix it.  The deep-seated pain you experience from loneliness, loss, and betrayal?  Just turn your heart around.

 

No, instead see yourself living by God’s mercy, the mercy of a loving Father.  You days and times are in His hand.  When the time is right, He will bring you out of turmoil and into peaceful haven.  So, instead of carrying worry, doubt, and dread yourself—as if it were all up to you—give it to Him.  Why?  Because He cares for you.  Not only do you worship a God who is victorious over the world and death, but you have a Father in heaven who loves you.

 

You belong to God.  He has called you to be His own dear child in the waters of baptism and continually in His Word.  Even though you experience suffering for a time, the glory of Christ’s resurrection is eternal.  Therefore, this promise is certain: “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”  He will restore you when you falter.  He will confirm you when you doubt.  He will strengthen you when there is no strength in you.  He will cause you to stand firm, when your knees are ready to buckle.  Behold, this is your God whom you worship. “To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] For more, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito

[2] John 15:18

[3] John 15:16

[4] Luke 9:24

Sixth Sunday of Easter (John 14:15-21)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sixth Sunday of Easter + May 21, 2017

Text: John 14:15-21

As we approach Ascension Day (this year, May 25), we continue to hear powerfully encouraging words from our Lord about how He continues to be with us, even though hidden from our sight.

 

This time, our Lord tells us that we will be distinct among men.  The first way He says that we will be distinct is to say that, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  To love Jesus is more than an act we can conjure up.  It’s more than thinking He’s a great guy and having affection toward Him.  This is the result of faith, not our own doing, that we love Jesus.  This is God’s incredible work that He has created a clean heart within us and renewed us with a right spirit.  The reason we know if we love Jesus by faith is that we keep His Word.  Those who love Jesus treasure the Word of God, hold it sacred, gladly pore over it.  They experience spiritual awakening, feeling the terror of God’s Law when He thunders against our wickedness, being raised up by the sweet consolation that our sins are forgiven through the precious blood of Jesus, and living in the joyful freedom of our salvation.

 

Yet, beware because the devil is a sly enemy.  He delights in convincing people that they can love Jesus and close their ears to His Word.  He would love to have you believe you can be a true Christian and never pray, put worship on the bottom of your priorities, and close your heart to your neighbor so you don’t care if he perishes in body or soul.

 

Just as we are too sinful to love God on our own, we also don’t have it in us to continue in this faith even for an hour.  Therefore, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive.”  He is the One who converted our hearts at the beginning, and brought us to know and believe in Jesus (the other Helper).  He is also the one who will keep us in this confession and faith, even while the world and the devil war against the true God and all who belong to Him.  The Spirit of truth is in us to keep us as the people who bear God’s Name—Christians.

 

Because of this, Christians are the target of attack.  We look vulnerable to the world, because we follow a God who saved us by dying on a cross.  But our living Lord assures us that He does not leave us as orphans (fatherless).  Rather, He gives a whole string of promises: “I am coming to you…you will see me…you will live…you will know…I will manifest myself to you.”  In fact we are not Fatherless, but we have the greatest and most powerful keeper of all, the Triune God.

 

Because of all this, Christians are distinct from the world.

You are distinct from the world because you love God and keep His Word.  His Word is a lamp to your feet.  Where the rest of men choose the guidance of their own darkened hearts, you have a light from above.  That light shows you who God is, proclaims the glories of His creation, instructs you in what it means to be a human being, and gives definition and meaning to your relationships.

 

You are different because you know your Father in heaven, and that He is the One who faithfully provides for you.  While the world scrambles for resources and men covet each other’s goods afraid they will be left destitute, you rest in God’s care even though we may have to wait for it for a time.  What other people in the world have a promise from heaven, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you”?[1]

 

You have a Savior who gives you a peaceful conscience through your Baptism—“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[2]  While others numb their conscience with drinking and drugs, you have an advocate in heaven whose blood speaks for your guilt and who causes you to be judged by His perfect obedience.

 

You have the Holy Spirit, the Helper who is with you forever.  The world religions all rely on the fortitude and self-dedication of their followers.  Not so with your God—“I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from Me you can do nothing.”[3]  You are not on your own in your faith or your life in Christ. Jesus has given you His Spirit of Truth who puts His Word into your heart and causes it to bear fruit.  He gives you strength for your struggles, and reassures you in your doubts.

 

What other people have a god so near to them as the Lord your God is to you?[4]  The answer is no one but the children of the Triune God.  Amen.

[1] Hebrews 13:5

[2] 1 Peter 3:21 (Epistle reading)

[3] John 15:5

[4] Deuteronomy 4:7

Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017

Text: John 14:1-14

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”  The only reason Jesus says this to His disciples is because He knows their hearts are troubled.  You don’t say “I am the Life” unless there’s the threat of death.  You don’t say do not be troubled unless there is tumult and uncertainty.

 

Jesus was speaking to His disciples at that time as they were about to face His betrayal, crucifixion, death, and then His ascension.  This arrangement where Jesus is with them face to face would not—could not—last forever, because it was necessary for Jesus to be taken from them in His suffering, and taken when He ascended into heaven 40 days after His resurrection.

 

The Ascension is coming, when Jesus’ disciples would lose their visible presence with the Lord.  Now, the Ascension is something we confess each week—He ascended to the Father and sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty—but something that isn’t well understood.  Thankfully, these next few weeks, each Gospel reading will teach us about the significance and comfort of Jesus’ Ascension.

 

In this part of the Gospel, Jesus reassures us about His Ascension: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  “I go to prepare a place for you” and “I will come again and will take you to myself.”

 

“Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in Me.”

Things like our bills, the direction of the country, and keeping our job cause great anxiety.  How much more should it matter where we go when it’s all said and done?

Yet our Lord says about this: do not be troubled.  It’s not based on performance evaluations or lifelong dedication.  Instead He says, believe!  Believe that He has done everything which is needed to bring a poor, weak, sinful creature back to God and bring them safely into eternal rest.

But how important it is to believe!  Where faith reassures a troubled heart, unbelief leads to an uncertain and callous heart.  The calling of a disciple of Jesus is to take Him at His Word each day. Repent of your wicked thoughts, words, and deeds.  Believe in God and the One He has sent to accomplish your forgiveness, your salvation.

 

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

On Good Friday, the debt you owed was paid.  Every sin which would bar you from God’s holy presence was atoned for there.

So, the comfort for you, as His disciple, is that He returns to the Father to prepare a place for your return to the Father.

This life is a pilgrimage, not a destination.  The true end of life is not the grim grave. It is to have a place with God.  What counts in the meantime is not our achievements here or how much we collect (because we must let all that go).  What truly lasts when this life comes to a close is our faith in Jesus, who alone is the way to the Father and the resurrection to eternal life.

Yet in our pilgrimage, we go through many unknown ways—unknowns about the future and the struggles we and our families will have to endure, as well as unknowns about what will become of Christians in the world.  Yet, Jesus assures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled…you know the way to where I am going.”  Even though we haven’t seen the end of our journey, we already know the way.  You may not know what lies on the road ahead, but you can be certain that through faith, your Savior has already prepared your place.

 

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Our comfort isn’t in the Ascension alone, but also in the fact that from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.  He comes again to gather us into that promise of eternity.

Salvation is not complete yet.  Yes, of course, the atonement which brought peace to all who believe is finished (John 19:30).  However, the creation still longs in eager expectation for Jesus’ return and the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-21).  That’s why the world is still like it is, full of unrest and destruction.  That part of the job isn’t finished yet.

So know where to expect paradise.  Paradise won’t be in the body of death you now have—full of sin and plagued by death.  Paradise won’t be in this world, filled with corruption and wickedness.  It will be complete when we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in glory.  It will be when we rise from our graves finally free from the curse of sin and death.  That’s the hope that we press toward, where our longings for outward peace will finally be satisfied.

 

Through many unknown ways, by faith we already know the only way to heaven.  The way is Jesus, who has become your way to eternal life.  Do not be troubled that He has ascended and is no longer visibly among us.  Believe that He has gone ahead of us, as the forerunner so that the children of God may be at home with their Father.  Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fourth Sunday of Easter + May 7, 2017

Text: John 10:1-10

Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd in this section of John’s Gospel.  Typically, we picture the Shepherd standing in endless green hills, leading His sheep.  However, right from the top of this discussion, Jesus describes a sheepfold.  The sheepfold is a walled enclosure for keeping the sheep safe through the night.  The Sheepfold for our purposes is the Christian Church.

 

Why the walls? Because there are both predators and there are dangers for the sheep that wanders.  By setting up these walls, Jesus teaches us—His sheep—why this must be.

 

You see, we are not just the Lord’s sheep that He’s gathered as He walked along the dusty roads of Palestine.  We are sheep who were caught in the thicket of sin, teetering on the brink of going off the cliff of death, and chased by coyotes like the Devil and his demons.  We are sheep who have been saved from many things, washed in pure water of Baptism,[1] and given a place where we may safely graze under the loving eye of our Shepherd, Jesus.

 

So there’s  a place inside the Sheepfold (the Church) and there’s a place outside the Sheepfold.  Inside the Sheepfold, we have peace with God, we call on Him as our Father, we have His help and consolation through trials and griefs, and the hope of eternity with Him.

 

Outside the Sheepfold, there is only doubt and despair.  There’s no peace with God, so we must always look to our works to see if our life measures up against those around us.  There’s no certainty of God being our Father, so people are afraid that he’s only an angry judge toward them, or that he’s an impotent bureaucrat who runs the universe.  Outside the Sheepfold, when scary times come, it’s up to you.  Even if you have a spiritual belief, it’s up to you to master it so you can find serenity and maintain purpose and hope—nevermind any promises of a blessed afterlife.

 

Inside the Sheepfold, you have a Shepherd who loves you.  His every aim for your life is that you endure many trials and remain steadfast in a Spirit-worked faith.  His goal in everything for your life is your salvation—“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

 

Yet, those on the outside of the Sheepfold still try to force their way in, so that they can destroy the Lord’s sheep.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

 

Outside are thieves and robbers.  The thieves steal from you the treasures that belong to a child of God—your faith, a clear conscience before God, love for God and your neighbor, a calm confidence in God’s fatherly care during trials, an open ear with God through His Son.

 

The boldest of these thieves will use biblical language, but rob it of its pure message of Law and Gospel.  They might insist on the King James version, or use many obscure translations to make their point.  But their work is clear: instead of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins, they make God’s Word into an almanac to predict the future, make divisions between levels of salvation, or claim that simple faith in Jesus isn’t enough to be a good Christian.

 

The more subtle thieves make their way into Christian circles and replace Scripture with counterfeit attractive sayings.  “With the temptation God will provide a way out that you may endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13) is replaced with the common but unbiblical concept, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”  They substitute firm statements of God’s love and faithfulness with platitudes.  Instead of “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:39) you hear the measly “God has a plan in this” when someone you know takes their own life.  “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3) is covered over with the idea that because God is love He would never send such fine people to hell.

 

Robbers, on the other hand, are those who make personal attacks on your salvation.  They call into question your being a Christian because your life isn’t pure and you struggle in weakness to overcome your sin.  They fill you with false guilt about things that are not Commandments of God.  They hold up their own example of good works—their devotional habits or all that they’ve done for the church—and subtly imply they’re a better class of Christian.

 

However, inside the Sheepfold of the Christian Church, the only voice that matters is God’s.  “The sheep hear His voice, and he calls His own sheep by name and leads them out.”  In this Sheepfold, the Lord through His Word and Sacraments gives you abundant life—not prosperity, health, and wealth—but a rich life of faith.  With that faith come all the blessings of the Kingdom of heaven.  You have a heavenly Father to call upon in need and praise for His goodness to you.  You have a High Priest in heaven, who sympathizes with your weakness and interposed His blood for all your guilt.  You have the Holy Spirit, who not only works this faith, but also comforts you with the assurance that though heaven and earth pass away, you have believed the right Gospel.

 

Jesus is the Gate who opens to His sheep so that they have this abundant life.  He laid down His life for the sheep so that this treasure would be theirs.  Therefore, He also jealously guards you against any who would try to steal you away.  The Holy Spirit He has given you gives you ears to recognize His voice and flee from the voice of strangers.  When His sheep hear the voice of strangers, they’re not afraid to turn off the TV, walk out of whatever service, or abruptly end the conversation.  The strangers can’t deliver on what they say, but can only take what you have from the Lord.

 

But your Good Shepherd loves you and gives you shelter against them in this Sheepfold of the Church.  He is ever faithful, and may He preserve you from every temptation to wander outside of His watchful care.  Amen.

[1] Hebrews 10:22