Second Sunday after Trinity (1 John 3:13-18)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Second Sunday after Trinity + June 30, 2019

Text: 1 John 3:13-18

The word “love” has taken on a life of its own.  It’s as if everyone has their own private dictionary of what they want it to mean.  So many interpret it simply as an emotion, and a shallow emotion at that.  The word “love” is the same as strong affection—I have good feelings toward you because you put butterflies in my stomach, but as soon as that euphoria wears off, then I can just as easily despise you and cast you off.  Love is a strong emotion, but that’s only a narrow slice of what love encompasses.

It all starts with God, who loves.  Man’s love is fickle, man’s love is finite, and soured by bad history. Man’s love is fallible, no matter how strong or devoted.  The Christian band, Third Day, showed this in their song (appropriately named) “Love Song.” Written first person from the Lord:

“I’ve heard it said that a man would climb a mountain
Just to be with the one he loves
How many times has he broken that promise
It has never been done
I’ve never climbed the highest mountain
But I walked the hill of Calvary

“Just to be with you, I’d do anything
There’s not price I would not pay
Just to be with you, I’d give anything
I would give my life away.”

No matter our experiences or our feelings, God teaches us what love truly is: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.”  Here is the gold standard for love: our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is Almighty, and yet He washed His disciples’ feet.  He is a King, and yet wore the form of a servant and was beaten for others’ crimes.  He was immortal and infinite, and yet to seek us He entered this world.  God became flesh.  While we were yet sinners, God died for us.

That’s what love is.  Not just a feeling, although the emotions are involved.  Not just a word, although the Word of God is living and active.  Love is not a passive thing, but a movement of the heart that pours out self-sacrificing action. John 3:16 gives us a definition of love: “God loved the world, namely that He gave up His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him may not perish.” (John 3:16, alt. translation) Call this not just love, but divine love.

But there’s a problem when it comes to us and divine love.  It’s problem we run into when we see the difference between God’s perfect love and man’s flighty love.  God made us for love, and even commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Yet, it’s easy to find examples contrary to that.

We could sit here all day, talking about what love truly is.  But, it’s not good enough to just have a head knowledge of divine love, looking down on the ignorance of others.  We aren’t just to receive divine love and go on our merry way.  John says, “…And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”  How important is this?

Verse 14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  The presence of divine love for our fellow human being is the evidence that God’s love has had its intended result in us.  When God talks about our loving as He has loved, He’s really talking about a living faith that abides in Him.

Maybe an illustration is best: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  Like with love, heart is another word that gets boiled down to simply mean emotions.  But the Greek word, often translated “have compassion,” means the guts, the place where you feel your deepest affection and your deepest unease.  If you close your guts, cut off affection for your brother in need, how does God’s love abide in you?  It’s not a jab, or a religious trump card to manipulate someone; it’s a question of fact. 

The difference between God’s love and our love is important, and where it exists, it is a call for us to repent.  Yes, Lord, I have closed my heart to my brother’s need.  I’ve passed him by; I haven’t picked up the phone; I’ve resented that he never seemed to learn his lesson.  And yet that is exactly what God did for you! In His love for you, in spite of your sin, He did not close His heart.  “And out of compassion, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matt. 18:27)   This is what our heart (our guts) should do when we see others in pain and grief.  Rather than push them away, make excuses why it’s not our problem, we are to live in that love which we so highly prize for ourselves.  It’s the love that won for us eternal life.

How do we get there?  This is the Lord’s doing, to make His people those who know His love in their inner being.  Trust what God is able to do with you, because He is the one who removes your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).  First of all, trust that He is able and willing to forgive all those times when you closed your heart to your brother, for the sake of Christ. 

Then, with the gift of the Holy Spirit in you, pray for Him to continue making you a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)  Think of this when we sing and pray the Offertory in a minute: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  You are confessing to God that it’s not good enough that you have a cold or lukewarm heart toward others.  Don’t let us be Cain, who was so blinded by his own jealousy that he raised a hand against his brother.  Don’t let us fail to raise our hands in help like the priest and the Levite who passed by the man in the ditch whom the Samaritan helped (Luke 10:29-37).  Give us a heart to recognize that all that we have is a trust from You for supporting the ministry of the word, caring for ourselves and our family who depend on us, and being willing to share our abundance when the need arises. “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”  Give us a true fear of you, never to become complacent in our place in your Kingdom.  Keep us also from despairing of your mercy and believing that you have called us to be your children.

And remember our Lord’s promise: “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, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:16-17) God grant it for you, for the sake of Jesus.  Amen.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed) (Isaiah 40:1-5)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed) + June 23, 2019

Text: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her   that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,  that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Comfort, comfort.  We love to get here.  But first has to come the discomfort.  The humbling.

This is described in picture language for us.  First, in terms of geological changes, akin to some of the changes necessary for I-90 to traverse the Cascades and Rockies.  The mountains and hills must be made low, the uneven ground become level, and the rough places a plain.  These describe some of the various effects the Word of God has on us during our lives.  There are times our mountains must be brought low—those things were are most proud of and unwilling to move.  How dare God tell us that we have to obey the authorities when we don’t agree with their decisions.  Who’s the county to tell me what I can do on my land?  This government is messing with the definition of marriage, so we’ll just be married in God’s eyes and forget the state.  But unless those authorities are forcing us to go against God’s Word, He says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God…for he is God’s servant for your good.”  Mountain, be humbled.

Other times the Word must correct what is mostly right, but still needing refinement.  This is the uneven ground that needs to be levelled.  This is what happens when someone learns they must make a decision to ask Jesus into their heart to be saved, but then later learn to appreciate the magnitude of God’s grace, when He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”  Or when someone’s life completely falls apart, and they grow to appreciate the power of our Lord in the Sacraments—of the forgiveness declared on human lips and the very Body and Blood of Christ given us to have ongoing union with Him.

There are different ways that we react to that humbling word.  Some will say that word doesn’t apply to me and it’s out of line.  Recently, Roman bishop Thomas Tobin sent out the message on Twitter:  

Bishop Thomas Tobin‏ @ThomasJTobin1 Jun 1

A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.

One person[1] responded by saying, “Catholic #LGBTQ people know Christ loves us and lives in us. Pray for forgiveness.”  It sounds like the Bishop got schooled on knowing the love of Christ, but we need to think about this.  Yes, of course God loves all people, including those who sin sexually.  But Jesus does say, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word…Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14:23-24)  Jesus loves us by saving us from sin and death, and a living faith will keep His word by living according to it.

God therefore comforts the afflicted, the humbled, those who have been brought low by sin and death—by their failures, by cancer, by losing friends and family.  This is where we see our Savior most clearly.  But those who refuse to be humbled will not know the true comfort that comes from God.  They’ll have to settle for the fleeting comforts that this world offers.

Now, it’s important to know that comfort is not to be confused with happiness.  God desires to comfort the humble, but this is so much more than “God wants you to be happy.” You can be comforted, even while you grieve a loved one.  You may not be happy about it, but because of the Lord’s Word and work, you have comfort stronger than the grief.  You can be comforted even when you lose your job and you’re forced on welfare, because you have a Father in heaven who will neither leave nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5-6).  You don’t have to be happy through it, but you do have a comfort that comes from the peace which passes all understanding, which is yours in Christ Jesus.

Today, we observe the nativity (birth) of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ.  That actually falls on June 24, a date picked because it’s about six months ahead of Christmas, the nativity of the Lord, because Luke tells us that Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was in her sixth month (Luke 1:26, 36).  But another commemoration follows the day after: June 25th.  A couple years ago, we honored this event on a Sunday: The presentation of the Augsburg Confession. It was the first statement of faith of those who would later be called Lutherans.  Anyway, we’re not here for a history lesson, but one of the articles of the Augsburg Confession speaks to John’s ministry:

AC XII – Repentance

It is taught among us that those who sin after Baptism receive forgiveness of sin whenever they come to repentance, and absolution should not be denied them by the church. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest. Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin would then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8).

That’s the other part of John’s ministry.  He is always pointing sinners like us to Jesus for grace for our sins, but he also preached a genuine repentance that that shows in holy lives.  When God says to His people in Isaiah 40, embodied in Jerusalem, “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” the proper result is that we want to turn away from sin and live lives of service to those around us.

It’s unfortunate that when Christians speak of living holy lives, people will react by saying that they preach works righteousness.  This is actually an example of our old flesh throwing up walls, not wanting to hear anything God has to say.  This is where we make excuses to say, it’s okay if we slack on our duty toward the poor because others will take care of them.  It’s alright if we don’t visit those who are sick or in prison because they should know we care about them, even if we don’t lift a finger to help them.

But then the voice of John the Baptist comes ringing through history and exposes our evil laziness: “Bear fruits that befit repentance!”  Don’t presume on the Lord’s kindness, that just because He doesn’t thunder from heaven about what we ought to do, think that He doesn’t really care how we live our lives.  His will for us is still the same—for us to do what He takes pleasure in—visiting the poor, caring for the needy, bringing relief to the suffering.  He wants us to serve our neighbor whenever we see them in need, and we have a way to bring relief.  The difference Christ made between the earth swallowing people up for their wickedness is that the punishment for our failure has been taken away.  It has been fully laid upon God’s Son, so that we are free.  We receive a double portion of good in place of what our sins deserved.

And in all of this, the glory of the Lord is seen.  This is the witness of who God is, and the

way He shows Himself to people who do not know Him.  From Zechariah’s song:

 76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

      77         to give knowledge of salvation to his people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

      78         because of the tender mercy of our God,

whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

      79         to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

God has prepared His way in you, and in all who hear His Word.  He has brought you to humility, to become like a child and receive His kingdom.  Now, having received His tender mercy, having been taken from the darkness of your own guesses about God, He guides you into the way of peace.  He leads you in living a life that follows that peace which comforts you in every affliction, which calms your heart in the face of disasters, and gives you that peace which this world cannot give.  He gives you that comfort, so that you are equipped to comfort others, as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  So rejoice, beloved, that God continues His tender mercies to you, and He is your God and Savior today and into eternity.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The Holy Trinity (Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

The Holy Trinity + June 16, 2019

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

In the course of our lives, there are people we come across who are worthy of respect, who we look up to.  One that comes to mind for me is the technical director at my community college.  As I was just getting started in theater, he was an influential mentor.  He taught me the value of teamwork, dedication, and attention to detail.  He handled the logistics of getting performances in motion, and he was a teacher at heart.  I looked up to him and even aspired to the same work when I was done with school.

You have your own examples of role models—teachers, supervisors, or commanders whom you have respected and have inspired you.  It’s a privilege to learn from them and work for them.  Sometimes their influence can even change the course of your life.

While we all have different examples of those respectable leaders, there is One whom all of us “work for” and who inspires and teaches us: He is the Lord of Hosts.  Here’s how the prophet Isaiah met Him:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

                      “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

                      the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah got immediately dropped in the boss’ office (so to speak)—and he was rightly terrified at the sight!  Even the holy angels who serve in the Lord’s presence cover their faces!  How much less does a impure man of dust belong!  But in response to Isaiah’s terrified, true confession, the Mighty One made peace with Him and declared Him worthy to be in the presence of the Most High:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

The fear of condemnation and destruction is removed, so that this man can stand in the presence of the Holy, Triune God.  But then there’s an amazing turn!  And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”  Isaiah—who just moments before feared eternal destruction—now eagerly volunteers to serve the Lord!  And that, even before he finds out what the job is!

This is the same awesome, holy God we worship here.  He is Thrice Holy, and He dwells in unapproachable light.[1]  Yet, He has cleansed us by His Word and washed us in body and soul.  This is the God who has come down to us in the flesh and said, “You are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you.”[2]  Not only be safe in His presence, but abide in him, the Holy One of Israel!

Having been cleansed, this is the same God we serve in our various vocations—husbands and wives, children and siblings, employees and managers, citizens, hearers of the Word.  All that we do is in service to our Lord, as St. Paul explains in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”[3]  Where ever and whatever He calls us to, the one on whom His peace rests replies, “Here am I! Send me!” 

Yet, we serve a God who is beyond our understanding.  Being in His service, we may begin to think we understand Him better than others.  As the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Maybe not always contempt, but a lack of fear.  In the Gospel for today, we hear of Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and teacher of Israel: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  He was sure he knew the things of God.  After all, he was a Pharisee who studied the Law of God day and night.  He knew the Torah and the Psalms by heart!

However, he was humbled by the Lord to learn he didn’t know as much as he imagined.  Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  So much for being an expert on the things of God!  Not only did he have to go back to school—he had to go back to the womb and be born again!

It’s ironic that they issue pastors a “Master of Divinity” degree.  One lesson we should take from Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, is that God has no Master and He cannot be studied and dissected.  He cannot be fit into nicely organized categories or domesticated for our fulfillment.  Whenever we, the creatures, think we have a leg up on Him, we find that we are the ones who are under His gaze: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.”[4]

It’s true for every Christian when we find ourselves thinking we have a handle on “our religion.”  It’s about going to church, living a good life.  You support the good causes and oppose the bad.  Basically, we learn how to talk the Jesus talk and walk the Jesus walk.  We know more about God than unbelievers.

But do we really?  If we think we’re so wise, why don’t we explain the Trinity to someone?  Go and explain God’s justice to people who have lost everything in a tornado.  Try to argue exact dates for the age of creation, when the flood is, where the dinosaurs are, and how the Grand Canyon was formed.  When we try to tackle things like that, we run into the fact that God is infinite, immortal, omnipotent, and we are dust.

And that’s just the way it should be, because we are His creatures: “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand.”[5]  There’s nothing greater that we can be!  This great and awesome Triune God we serve has all knowledge and upholds the universe by His powerful Word.[6]  But this same God who has spoken to us by His Son.  And of all majestic and sublime things He could tell us of, this is what He says: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  God speaks and the world is created; He speaks and you are forgiven and given victory over death and eternal life with Him; His Spirit brings you to believe this good news and will raise you on the Last Day.  We truly serve an awesome God, here in time and hereafter for eternity.  Amen.

[1] 1 Timothy 6:16

[2] John 15:3, see also John 13:7-10

[3] Colossians 3:23-25

[4] Psalm 11:4

[5] Psalm 95:7

[6] Hebrews 1:3

Day of Pentecost (John 14:23-31)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Day of Pentecost + June 9, 2019

Text: John 14:23-31

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” When Jesus says this, sometimes it makes us feel pretty good about ourselves. After all, when we look at what we’ve done, we might find that we make a pretty convincing case that we’ve kept Jesus’ Word. After all, we’re here at Church. We do good for our families and in our communities. We are good people. And we like to hear that Word of God proclaimed. Therefore, it means that we love Jesus.

Sometimes we feel good about that. Sometimes we don’t. Because we all have, at times, found that we failed to keep Jesus’ Word. We ignored it. We got angry with it. At the time, it didn’t give us what we wanted. It told us not to fall into that sin that we like so much. It told us that we had rebelled against a good God by being evil. And since we did, we do deserve death and hell. When it suited us, we did not love Jesus. We did not love the Father. We did not love the Holy Spirit. All because His Word was not our word, which is much more enjoyable to keep.

Our own word—the word that I came up with. The word that makes sense to me. The word that we think everyone else foolish for not listening to. We turn to that instead of Christ. My word looks out for me. My word lifts me up.  My word tears down those against me. My word speaks my reality, what I want. And my word can take me where I want to go, by any means necessary. My word doesn’t have time to be patient when the Lord says wait on Him. My word doesn’t rely on the Lord to provide for what I need. My word looks out first for myself, and others I’m not too busy. And that’s why my word is sinful. My word is evil. My word must end.

In our Old Testament lesson from Genesis 11, there were a whole group of people gathering around their own word in the land of Shinar. Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly…Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”  You notice how much that sounds like a twisted version of the Creation?  By their own word, they were going to build a tower, and by that tower they were going to reach heaven. They were going to make a name for themselves. A name that was over every name. The Lord took their words, and confused the languages. And He did it for their sake. For if their word remained united, there would be no sin impossible for them to inflict on themselves, each other, and the world

The same is still true today. Have you ever found the people you disagree with the most seem to be talking a different language than you do? They say one thing, but you know those words mean something else than what you mean? The Lord is still at work, protecting both us and our neighbor from our sin becoming even worse than it is. We may dream of what it would be like if congress could get along, or the world didn’t have so much division.  But the trouble isn’t in the disagreement; it’s in our sinful hearts.  The Lord has set a limit on the sin of Man. And anything that exceeds it never lasts long.  History shows us that again and again. The Lord is patient, but He is also merciful. Our own word never goes as far as we think it should. And that’s good news.

But there is better news than that. Because there is a Word that breaks through the barrier of language and confusion. A Word that breaks through our sinful desires, and the plans of our neighbors. A Word that breaks through sin and death to deliver life, and light, and forgiveness, and salvation. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, the Word of God was spoken in Jerusalem. Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians heard them telling in their own tongues the mighty works of God. Telling of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus told His disciples, “…the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” What Jesus said, His Word: That He was crucified, died, and was buried, and that he rose from the dead on the third day. In this, He brought peace. Peace for the rebellious, evil sinner. Peace with God. Not peace as the world gives. Not peace according to my own word, which is a peace that only lasts until I can get something better for myself. Jesus gives an eternal peace. The peace of sins forgiven. The peace that comes from a sacrifice that pays for everything. The sacrifice of the Son of God. Jesus, the Lamb, who died for your peace. So now, you can stand before Holy and Almighty God. No longer as an enemy awaiting their sentence. But now a beloved child with a home, and a place forever.

The Word of peace from your Lord, of your Creator, settles your heart in a way that human words could never do.  In the face of overwhelming loss and deep suffering, human words evaporate like mist.  When the “earth gives way…and the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” human words are empty.  But the Word our Lord speaks, and plants home in our heart, that Word alone can support us.

Yet Jesus still said to His disciples, “You heard me say to you, I am going away.” Although He ascended into heaven, it is better for us that He went away. Jesus is here differently, but absolutely still here. He’s here by means of His Word. Wherever that Word is proclaimed, there is Jesus. He even gives us His body and His blood. So His presence is not just in spirit only, but physically as well. 

And still, Jesus is bold to says to them, and to us, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” The world’s word, our own word will still lead us into sin and evil. Even when we think that it’s for our good. The sinful nature is that strong. And fighting against it feels overwhelming. It always sounds so much easier to let that other word sweep us away, into where we believe it will take us, good or bad. Yet, Jesus dares give us hope. Jesus dares give us assurance. Just like He did to the disciples. Just like He did for those on the Pentecost after His resurrection: The sin and evil of this world, the sin and evil festering inside our own hearts has been overcome. That His cross and His sacrifice are sufficiently powerful to overcome it all. That His Word is stronger than our deepest-felt pain. That His Word is stronger than our loneliness. That His Word is stronger than our loss. That His Word is stronger than our sadness. That His Word is stronger than our sin. That His Word is stronger than death. That the Word of Jesus Christ is more powerful than all the other words in the world, because He has already overcome the worst that sin, death, and the devil can dish out. And He died, rose, and ascended for you, and He will come again in glory. 

This is the Word that we treasure. This is the Word we keep close to our hearts. This is the Word we love. The Word-Become-Flesh, who made His dwelling among us. The Word through whom we are loved by the Father. The Word that forgives us, raises us from the dead, gives us eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday after the Ascension (John 15:26—16:4)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sunday after the Ascension + June 2, 2019

Confirmation Sunday

Text: John 15:26—16:4

In the Creed, why do we confess “I believe”?  In the original Nicene Creed, it said, “We believe in one God,” because it was the confession of the 318 bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea.  It was the shared faith of all those gathered, and the believers they came to represent. 

But today, we say, “I believe” because no one can believe for another.  We all must stand before God with our own faith.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us how this happens.  “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.”  The Helper, the Holy Spirit is the one responsible for creating that faith in each hearer, and keeps us in that faith day in and day out.

Before that ever happened for us today, the Apostles did bear witness, and their witness has been Spirit-breathed and written in the New Testament.  They’ve fulfilled their role, as Jesus said, “You also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”

But when it comes down to it, each person must believe for himself.  Pastors do their part by faithfully and thoroughly preaching and teaching.  Parents, though, have a bigger role because their part begins earlier in life and continues throughout the week.  They do their part to impart the faith to their children—yes, by bringing them to church but that’s just a fraction of the week.  They also set an example by how they make the Word of God a priority, they talk about these things throughout the week, leading their family in prayers at meals and before bed.  This is what the Lord describes in Deuteronomy 6: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (vv. 6-7).

Even so, each one of us must receive this faith for himself.  This is what confirmation is.

And the time of testing is coming, and has come.  The vows you will take in confirmation are all the more serious, because they are harder than ever to keep.  Unless you’re especially blessed with an unusually strong Christian family, being in the Word is second fiddle to all the other activities of life.  Many of your friends come from families which have never had God at the center, much less even at the edge of their lives.  When you go to them for advice down the road about marriage, for instance, they might just tell you it’s better to cheat or divorce than to stick through it and work through problems with your spouse.  The generations today are seeing unprecedented anti-Christian “religious” fervor against the sanctity of life, moral decency, and the value of family (to name a few).

So today as we are witness and brothers and sisters who stand with these young women, I think it’s good to consider what vows we take as confirmed Christians:

P  Do you hold all the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God?

R  I do.

Many church bodies that talk about how important the Bible is, but only in theory.  In practice they will run rough-shod over what that Word of God says when it conflicts with what we or the loudest crowd wants.  The difference with their vow is subtle: “Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ…?”[1]  Notice the difference?  We believe, teach, and confess that the Old and New Testaments are in their entirety the inspired, inerrant Word of God, that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” and “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16).  We believe this not because it’s the die-hard conservative view, but because that’s what God says about His Scriptures.

P  Do you confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Scriptures, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true?

R  I do.

Many of us are familiar with scam calls—claiming to be from the IRS, or Microsoft, or some legal entity.  But every month they get sneakier and harder to distinguish from legitimate calls.  One recent one simply says, “Can you hear me?” and if you say “Yes,” they use that recording to authorize transactions with your stolen information.

Well, it’s not getting any easier to tell legitimate churches from counterfeit.  There’s of course the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but then part of them rebranded as Community of Christ.  The old traditional divisions of church bodies are no longer a sure indicator. There are Reformed churches that teach decision theology, and Baptists who believe in the real, bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

You can’t even depend on the name Lutheran anymore.  The vow concerning the doctrine of the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” confuses people because there’s a group called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA. Even though they’re called Lutheran they make the hair-splitting distinction that the Bible contains God’s Word and it shows in several practices.[2]  When Reformers of the 16th century were forced to go separate ways with the Papists, they needed to identify.  Since “Catholic” was already inextricably linked with “Roman,” they chose “Evangelical” or the church that preaches the Gospel of the Bible.  But, as is typical, Evangelical in the 21st century means something different—usually a non-sacramental, Reformed-leaning Bible church.  “Lutheran” was a title first applied by Luther’s opponents, but since we needed some distinction from Zwingli, Calvin, and others, the name stuck because Martin Luther and the first Evangelicals did confess the unadulterated faith of the Bible.

All that the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” believes, teaches, and confesses from Scripture is written down in the Book of Concord for anyone to read ( It gives a faithful explanation of God’s Word and painstakingly sticks to Scripture alone as the only authoritative rule for faith and life.  But as far as most Christians are concerned, Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism to explain the most important aspects of the Christian faith, so that “the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.”

The next three vows are promises we make to live out the calling to follow Christ in whatever place He puts us:

P  Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?

R  I do, by the grace of God.

“Do I have to go to church?” is usually the way you hear it phrased, as if it were an unbearable burden to get out of bed, wrangle the kids, and turn off your distractions and chores for an hour and fifteen minutes (or longer if you come to Sunday School).

But if you have this faith in God, believe what He says about your need, and trust the invitation, “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,”[3] then you would do whatever it takes to get to the Divine Service and try to rectify it whenever something kept you away from this Sabbath rest.

P  Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?

R  I do, by the grace of God.

As often as we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy Name,” we are asking for this to happen in our lives, and the lives of our brothers and sisters here and scattered through the world.  We are pledging ourselves and asking God to help us be His children inside and out, in public and in private, on Sunday and the rest of the week.  And we’re not just signing a 5-year contract with God, we’re pledging ourselves until death.

P  Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?

R  I do, by the grace of God.

Finally, there’s a vow to remain true to God, even under spiritual attack, the sloth of our sinful flesh, and the hatred of the world.  Basically, will you continue to be a Christian even when the road is long and hard, when it comes to pass that “a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:36-37)  This is no joke.  You are vowing that you are willing to leave everything for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Phil. 3:8-10)

But when over half of all husbands and wives can hardly keep their vows to live with each other, how can we take such bold vows?  “I do, by the grace of God.”  Yes, by the grace of God, because it is His will to keep you in this faith.  “I have said these things to keep you from falling away” our Lord says, and His apostle Paul writes to us, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13)

How was it possible for the martyrs of old to remain true to the Lord even when threatened with loss of property and life?  It wasn’t simply a human determination; it was the Lord Himself.  The Lord has done His part, and that’s no small thing—He fulfilled the Scriptures, offered up His life, rose from the dead, and continually sends His Holy Spirit.  All of this keeps you from falling away.  You have a strong help, so by God’s grace use it.  It’s not just your parents, or your pastor, or the brothers and sisters gathered here today that make it possible to keep Jesus as your own Lord and Savior.

Will you always be a bold confessor? Will you have doubts?  Will your sinful laziness keep you scrolling Facebook when you could be doing a quick devotion, or in bed when you should be out the door to church?  Quite likely.  But the God who called you is faithful to the good work He has begun in you.  He will surely bring it to fulfillment on the day of Jesus Christ, and God help His people to always cling to His promises. Amen.

[1] United Methodist Church Rite of Ordination, emphasis mine p. 20 (5/30/19)


[3] Matthew 11:28