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The Gracious Heart of Jesus

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[Jesus said:] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (John 17:20-21)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

According to John, it was the last thing Jesus said in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. After teaching His disciples many things about Himself, the world, and things to come, Jesus concludes His last evening with His disciples in prayer to the Father. And He concludes His prayer with the words in this text. As the saying goes, you can learn a lot about a man by listening in on his prayer. I would submit to you that you can learn so much more listening to the prayer of a man who knows that he will soon die.

And Jesus is headed to meet His death. In the next verse after our Gospel, John tells us that Jesus goes with His disciples across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas, who betrays Him, leads a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees to meet Jesus and to arrest Him.

What can we learn about Jesus through this prayer? It helps to pay close attention to the details. Notice that in these final petitions, Jesus isn’t praying for the world. Neither is He praying for the disciples. No, in our text, Jesus is praying for those who would believe in Him through the apostolic Word. In other words, He is praying for you, me, this congregation, the whole Church.

What does Jesus ask the Father? What does He want for (and from) us who follow Him? We find that in three clauses in verse 21: “That they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in you, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”

Jesus first prays that all believers may be one just as Jesus and the Father are one. That’s really close! But that’s not all. Jesus also prays that these believers would be “in us.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t only desire for His people to be close to each other, but also close to Him and the Father. Indeed, the only real unity is unity around and in the triune God. Those first two clauses beginning with “that” help us understand the content of Jesus’ prayer.

But the third clause, the one that begins “so that” does something else. It is a purpose clause, and it points to the ends of this unity. Jesus desires that, through Christian unity, the world might believe that He was sent by the Father. Note that Jesus doesn’t pray for the world directly. Instead, He prays for the world through the unity of His people. The unity of the Church is a witness to the world. It is fundamental to the Church’s mission.

But an honest reflection would show that Christian unity is lacking these days. There’s the fragmentation of the Church into so many denominations—even so many church bodies that claim Lutheran heritage. There’s the biting and devouring that takes place between members of our own denomination. Closer to home, we may find the temptation to think only of our own congregation’s wants and ignore the need of the larger body of Christ. Or a lack of concern individual members of our congregation have for one another. Each of these hurt our Christian witness to the world. But they also hurt our fellow saints.

In a most perverse way, the devil will use affliction to tempt you away from God. We should know better: it was the afflicted and downtrodden whom Jesus especially sought out, who most joyously heard His Word because they knew this world only breaks you eventually. Sometimes, the hits keep on coming in the form of sickness, injury, financial loss, family troubles, grief, and more. Satan will use them to make you curl up in a ball in the corner, to turn your face to the wall—to separate yourself from sadness. That’s where isolation happens—divided from Christ and His body, the Church. The devil works hard at this one, because he knows how comforting the Gospel will be if you hear it at such a time. Remember that the Lord is your strength, and it is in His means of grace that He delivers grace and life to sustain you—even in the worst of trials.

This is a time when Christians often fail each other: when people are afflicted, the temptation is to leave them alone—because we don’t know what to say, we want to “give them space,” or because being with sad people makes us uncomfortable. The same is true for those who, because of health, can no longer make it to church. It’s a lonely existence. The inaction of others leaves the one who suffers isolated and alone—and the devil will use that to convince them that they are separated from God, too; that they are no longer part of the “one in Christ.” The Lord uses us as His hands and voice: let us not cease in visiting and caring for those who are in deep distress. And let’s not be afraid to let others know our needs.

If Jesus is all about restoring oneness, then the devil is going to be all about fostering division. That is what sin does: it divides. It shatters. It fragments and isolates. Plenty of sins divide and separate. Pride will have you alone on your pedestal, considering others below you and not worth your time. Greed will have you gather possessions to yourself, not friends or family. Lust will have you view others as objects to be used, not as fellow people for whom Christ has died. Many sins entice you to hide in a room with your sin, all alone. They work to destroy friendships, marriages, families, and congregations by division and subtraction.

All of that separation is awful enough, but it distracts us from what is worse: sin separates you, divides you from God. It keeps you unholy, and an unholy you cannot be one with your holy Savior. If you cannot be one with Him, all that is left is the ultimate, eternal separation of death and hell

It’s a problem that’s been going on ever since the Fall in the Garden. The Bible tells us that the first Church was in perfect unity with God and with one another. Adam and Eve were perfect, sinless, and holy. Furthermore, they were created in the image of God. Because God is righteous, they were righteous too. They reflected His glory. Furthermore, they could be in His presence. They could walk with God in the Garden. They could look upon His face. There was no shame, no guilt that would make them run away and hide.

Sin changed all that. As soon as Adam and Eve fell into sin and heard God walking in the Garden, they ran and hid from Him. When He asked what they had done, they blamed Him and each other. They were no longer one with God. They would no longer be as one with each other, because they would always have selfish, ulterior motives in dealing with one another. Because of their sin, God cast them out of the Garden, away from the tree of life—but not before He promised that the Savior would come and deliver them from death and devil. The Savior would come and reverse the curse of sin. He would bring people back to God by removing their unrighteous sin and make them holy once again.

The Savior is Jesus, the One praying in the Gospel. Remember what happens next: Jesus will be arrested and hauled out of the Garden of Gethsemane. He’ll be put on trial and sentenced to death for being guiltless. Then He’ll be taken from the city to the Place of the Skull, and He’ll be crucified.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. When the Passion of our Lord begins, He’s removed from a garden, too—because of His holiness. Where Adam was sentenced to death by God because of His guilt, Jesus is sentenced to death by man because of His innocence. Where God grieved at the sin and separation brought about by Adam, man rejoices to be separated from the Son of God when He dies on Calvary.

Jesus is undoing what Adam did. He’s taking Adam’s place to undergo Adam’s punishment: not just physical death, but far worse. He’s fully forsaken by God on the cross. That’s what it means when He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The Son of God—one with the Father from eternity—suffers the ultimate separation from oneness with the Father. In other words, He suffers hell on the cross before He is restored to His Father again.

All of this lies less than a day away as Jesus prays this prayer; and listen again to what He prays about you: “That they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (John 17:21). Jesus prays that you would be one with God and one another again, like Adam and Eve before the Fall into sin.

 In His prayer, we get a glimpse into the gracious heart of Jesus. Not only does He desire unity in the Church and unity with God. He does what it takes to make it happen. You see, there’s only one way for that prayer to be answered, and that is for Jesus to suffer the ultimate separation from God in your place. That’s what the cross is about. For Christ, separation and condemnation. For you, redemption. Restoration. Reconciliation. One with God and one another again.

Look around you here, and you will see a miraculous gathering of people. Not many in numbers, certainly; but more than that first two-member congregation. The Lord Himself has gathered you together, and it is He who keeps you together—who keeps you one with one another, His whole Church, and Himself. And He tells you how He does in our Gospel for today.

In His prayer, Jesus calls you “those who believe in Me through [the apostles’] Word.” He’s given you His Word, and His Word makes and keeps you one. Faith comes by hearing His Word, which He gave to us through His prophets and apostles. His Word is the means to gather us together, and His Word is His means to keep us together, one in Him. That is why we gladly repent of our sins of ignoring His Word in favor of our sinful, divisive desires.

Jesus has given you His glory. He prays to His Father, “The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one.” The glory of Jesus is foremost the cross, for that is the ultimate act of love for us, that is where we best see the gracious heart of Jesus.

Jesus has given His cross to you and it didn’t hurt you any more than three quick splashes of water. In Baptism, Jesus joined you to His cross, His death and resurrection. Without that, you’d have to die your own death for sin, isolated from God forever. But because He’s shared the glory of His cross with you, you are now one in Him. That is why we gladly repent of our sins that would separate us from His life and lead us death, for Christ has opened to us the way of salvation.

Furthermore, Jesus prays, “I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus has made His name known to you: He has made known to you that He is the Savior of all nations, forgiving you all of your sins. He’s put His name on you—marked you as His own! You are not left as individuals trying to find your way to an unknown God through any variety of religions. And with His name, the Lord has also made known to you His will. He tells you that He has gathered you in, forgiven your sins, made you one with Him by His sacrifice. That’s why we gladly repent and confess our pursuits of other gods that cannot save, including our own desires and wishes, for salvation is found in Christ.

Jesus has given us His Word, His glory, and His name. It is in these gifts that we best see the gracious heart of Jesus for you and me. It is by these gifts that He has made us one. It is by these gifts that He keeps us one.

I give great thanks this day, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, to be united in Him and with you. This is all the Lord’s doing, and so you can be sure: you are one with His body, the Church, and one with Christ: for His Word, His glory, and His name are all summed up in these words: you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Seated in the Heavenly Places: The Ascension of Our Lord

“Ascension of Christ” by Benevuto Tisi

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“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:15–23).

 

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Two Big Promises

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[Jesus said:] “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus makes two big promises that Christians need to hear. The latter is more popular and, at first glance, more comforting. It is the kind of promise that people put on the signature line of their emails or make into memes on Facebook or Instagram. The former is just as certain, however, and equally significant, but in a different way.

Jesus spoke these two big promises to His disciples in the Upper Room just before His death and resurrection, but they apply to all followers of Christ.

We’ll start with the first promise: “In the world you will have tribulation.”

Jesus begins by talking about the world. He said a lot about the world in the Upper Room that night: it cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:7); it does not give peace as Jesus gives (John 14:27); it hates Jesus and will therefore hate His disciples (John 15:18); Christians are not “of the world” and are chosen “out of the world” (John 15:19); the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:11); and the world will rejoice while the disciples weep and lament (John 16:20). Then comes John 16:33, where Jesus promises His disciples that in the world they will have tribulation.

The word translated “tribulation” has both a literal and a figurative meaning. In the literal sense it means physical pressure. This pressure is not the good kind. Think pressure cooker or hydraulic press. The kind of pressure you experience when life squeezes you or when circumstances beyond your control press down on you. It is when the weight of the world bears down and threatens to crush you. Christians should expect this kind of pressure from the world.

When you are not experiencing this kind of tribulation, the promise of “you will have tribulation” hardly seems comforting. It seems almost threatening—at least disconcerting. But when you are in the midst of it—when the pressure of this world is bearing down on you—it is comforting to know it has not caught God unawares. It is comforting to know God has not abandoned you. Indeed, experiencing the unpleasant fulfillment of this first promise drives us toward dependence on the second promise: “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”

This is not the first time Jesus told people to “take heart.” He said the same to the disciples during the storm at sea (Mark 6:50), to the paralytic in Capernaum (Matthew 9:2), and to the bleeding woman who touched the fringe of His garment (Matthew 9:22). Those who follow Jesus are to be “always of good courage” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) even amid extreme pressure.

On what basis? On the basis of His victory. He has overcome the world which opposes Him. Note the verb tense. “I have overcome.” When Jesus makes this promise, it is before Easter. Even before He rises from the dead, Jesus has overcome the world. His resurrection confirms His lordship of the world opposing Him. This is no small thing, for it reminds us how His victory over the ongoing pressures we face is already completed, even before we finish enduring them.

The disciples are going to need these comforting promises of Jesus. Though they confidently claim that they understand Jesus’ parting words, Jesus utters the sober prediction that they will soon abandon Him. The time is coming when their faith will undergo a severe test, a test they will fail miserably. When push comes to shove, when the going gets tough, they will all scatter, each going his own way. They will leave Jesus alone in His darkest hour. But Jesus will overcome.

In a very short time, Jesus will face and overcome tribulation greater than any of His disciples will ever face. In great fear of death, He will sweat blood on the Mount of Olives. He will be abandoned by all His disciples. He will willingly give Himself into the hands of those who will lead Him mercilessly, bound hard and cruel, from one unjust judge to another. He will be falsely accused and condemned, spit upon, scoffed at, and struck in the face with fists. He will be hit, whipped, crowned with thorns, and treated wretchedly—like a worm and not a man. He will be counted a sinner and hung up between two evildoers as a curse. He will be pierced in hand and feet with nails, and in His highest thirst He will be given vinegar and gall to drink. Finally, in great pain, He will give up His spirit.

All of this Jesus will do for you and me, so that He might redeem us poor and condemned creatures, not by any of our works, merit, or worthiness, but by His holy suffering, death, and shedding of blood. So that He might pay our debt and we might be healed by His wounds. So that He might overcome sin, death, and the world on our behalf.

Let us heed the warning: Pride goes before a fall. Those boasting about spiritual maturity stand in danger of succumbing to human pride and unbelief. And none of us are immune. The devil and the world seek to scare us or ensnare us. And our old Adam is all too often a willing ally.

It’s no secret that it’s not easy to be a Christian these days. Millions of Christians across the world are experiencing persecution. Thousands are martyred each year. While we need not meet in secret, and none of us here has yet shed his or her blood due to tribulation, the time of being in the majority—if not in numbers, at least in cultural and political influence—is past. We are living in what some call a post-Christian era. Politicians used to at least give lip-service to Christians and Christianity; now some openly mock us or chastise us. A few of them go so far as to insist that they are the true Christians, and that we who hold to biblical teachings regarding the sanctity of marriage and human life are unloving and teaching falsely. For most of us, we are in completely new territory.

What are Christians to do, scattered throughout a pagan world that seems to thrive on hatred, violence, and oppression? What are Christians to do when we feel we are a minority, out of place, out of step, out of time? With the world falling apart all around us, what are scattered Christians to do?

Two common responses of Christians to the world’s attacks is withdrawal or compromise. Both are toxic because both acts reject the vocation and intellectual inheritance handed down to us. The act of withdrawal contracts Christianity leading to apathy or elitism, whereas compromise reinterprets Christian doctrine according to the ways of thinking currently in vogue. Withdrawal and compromise are inconsistent with biblical Christian living. Withdrawal denies that the Christian life is to be lived out in our vocations, lived out in the world, not of the world, nor separated from it. Compromise ultimately denies Christ and Him crucified for a world of sinners.

Dr. Peter J. Scaer had this to say about that in an online essay entitled “Double Down”:

For years, the American church has been in decline, and for a good number of reasons. My own best guess is that prosperity isn’t good for the soul. The more we have, the less God is needed. Or so we think. And so, what have we done? Well, we seek to make the Church more like the world that surrounds us. The Church becomes less a sanctuary, more a motivational center. The hymns are replaced with praise songs, not so much light, but flimsy. Fellow Lutherans have a hard time finding a decent church, one that has reverence, one that uses the liturgy, and sings hymns that fortify.

And still we wonder, what should we do? I would say, enough with the retreating, and the self-doubt. Enough we trying to be what we are not. What should we do? Double down. Double down on Lutheranism. Double down on our confession. Double down on hymnody and liturgy. As the world grows darker, the Church must be salt and light. Salt that loses its saltiness is good for nothing. And the greater the darkness, the greater the light that still shines.

And if the world is hell bent on spreading lies, let’s be heaven bent on speaking the truth, even and especially when it’s under assault. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” says our Lord. And as often as we do, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. So it is, we are memory keepers. We hold sacred the Scriptures that uphold us. One thing is expected of a steward, and that is faithfulness. And he who is faithful to the end will be saved. No gimmicks, no rebranding, no euphemisms, or treating the truth as if a distasteful vegetable that needs to be hidden under a fatty and sugary sauce.

So, dust off those hymnals, those catechisms and Bibles, and together, let’s double down on the faith of our fathers, the one thing needful.

What should the Church do in the face of declining interest and increasing opposition? Not new strategies or promotions, but more of what she’s done for centuries—the basics of faithful Word and Sacrament ministry.

Let’s be making disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20).

Let’s live in the benefits of our Baptism, which works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Let’s put to death the Old Adam in us by daily contrition and repentance, that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Let’s live in the new life of the Spirit, loving the Lord our God with all our heart and all of our strength and with all of mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving one another as Christ has loved us.

Let’s be confessing our sins, and receiving absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.

Let’s be receiving Christ’s true body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith.

Let’s be singing joyfully and heartily the liturgy and treasury of hymns—old and new—that we have received from our fathers in the faith.  

Let’s have no fear of those who may harm us, nor be troubled, but in our hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us; yet doing it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when we are slandered, those who revile our good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:14-16).

Let’s turn to the heavenly Father in prayer, trusting that He hears our petitions and will grant our requests according to His gracious will, for our benefit, and eternal good.  

Dear Christian brothers and sisters: In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; Christ has overcome the world. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Love One Another

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Love One Another

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In the Presence, Glory, and Rest of the Lord: Sermon for the Funeral of Lorraine Scheerhoorn

Click here to listen to this sermon.Lorraine Scheerhoorn

“My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

As you’ll read in her obituary, Lorraine confessed publicly the faith into which she was baptized in the Rite of Confirmation at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Trosky on April 2, 1944. On that day, Lorraine promised that she would “continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.” By the grace of God, Lorraine kept that promise; she fought the good fight of faith and has received the crown of eternal life.

On the day of her confirmation, Lorraine received this verse, Exodus 33:14, a promise of God, that she wanted you to hear today: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

What an excellent text for the Christian life and death of one of God’s saints! As we should do with any and every Bible passage, we’ll first consider this verse in its original context, and then apply it to our lives on this day in which we recall all the blessings that the Lord bestowed upon His daughter and our sister-in-Christ, Lorraine.

As the Lord first spoke these words to Moses, Moses had just come down from Sinai with the two tablets of the Law, written by the finger of the Lord, only to find the people of Israel worshiping and sacrificing to the golden calf. When God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and start over again to make a new nation through Moses, the prophet interceded on their behalf. The Lord relented, telling the prophet there would still be punishment for those who had sinned against Him, but Moses was to continue leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land.

The Lord and Moses had a very special, unique relationship. We are told: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” We see this, in the conversation between himself and the Lord recorded in our Old Testament reading. Moses wrestles with the Lord in prayer much as Jacob had once done, not wanting to let the Lord go without first receiving a blessing.

Relying on this close relationship, Moses says: “You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.’” Moses then pleads for greater information concerning the Lord’s intentions as far as Israel is concerned: “Show me now Your ways… Consider too that this nation is Your people.” In other words, “I am to be Your leader of Your people, please let me know your intentions concerning them.” We see how Moses approaches the throne of the Lord’s grace “boldly and confidently,” as Luther encourages us in His explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism.

The Lord reassures Moses, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Moses receives what he asks for! The Lord promises that His own personal Presence will continue to be with His people. Moses holds the Lord firmly to this word of assurance. “If Your Presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here,” he says. “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and Your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

These words of Moses, although stated as questions, are actually the words of a believer who clings to the Word and promise of God. He approaches the Lord in the spirit of the psalmist who declares, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).

Once more the Lord reassures Moses: “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in My sight, and I know you by name.” Moses is overcome with joy. In this joyful mood he proceeds to make one more daring request. He says to the Lord, “Please, show me Your glory.”

Although Moses had communicated with the Lord “face to face” (Exodus 33:11), he had not seen the Lord’s glory in its total splendor. Moses wants to see God in all His holiness, His majesty, and perfection.

But the Lord cannot comply with Moses’ request, as He Himself states: “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” As a human being cannot look into the light of the sun without being blinded by its brilliance, so likewise sinful people living here on this earth cannot behold the glory of a holy God without being destroyed. Believers also are sinful human beings. They cannot know God fully or comprehend His ways. They cannot dwell in His holy light. Only in eternity will the veil between a believer and the holy God be removed, and “we shall see Him as He is.”

The Lord, however, does not become angry with Moses because of his unusual request. He rather says to him, “I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” What a beautiful reminder lies in these words! For us human beings here on this earth, the Lord’s glory rests in that name by which He has revealed Himself to us—the I AM WHO I AM, the Lord of the covenant, the God who in His Word has revealed Himself to us above all in His mercy, His compassion, His free and faithful grace!

Moses boldly asks for a direct vision of God’s glory, but God tells Him He will show him more—He will send His goodness. God will reveal more in His character than in His glorious appearance. The Lord then grants Moses an unusual experience. The Lord puts Moses into the cleft of a rock. While passing by, the Lord covers Moses with His “hand,” that is, with His protecting power. After passing by, the Lord lets Moses see His “back,” that is, the reflection of His glory. The Lord reveals to Moses as much as He can in the circumstances. The important revelation as far as Moses is concerned is the proclaiming of the Lord’s name.

There are times in our own lives as Christians when the pressures of this earthly existence weigh heavily upon us. Life’s problems and disappointments mount with increasing fury. The death of loved ones causes us pain and sorrow. The weight of sin wears us down. Our own responsibilities never seem to lessen in intensity. “How much more can we be expected to carry?” we ask. We wrestle with the Lord in prayer. We long for some kind of added reassurance that He is truly there, according to His promise.

With Peter we declare, “Lord, to who shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But isn’t there more than mere words? Heaven seems so far away. “Show us Your glory,” we say with Moses. We want the Lord to give us some tangible sign of His glorious Presence.

God gives us something better!

In Christ, we have better than a sign. We have God’s Presence with us. We have God’s glory veiled in human flesh. We have God’s promised rest. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. God sends us His goodness.

In our Gospel for today, we hear: “For 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” (John 3:16–17).

The truth be told, because of sin, none of us deserve to be in God’s glory and presence. None of us deserve God’s goodness or promised rest—not Lorraine, not you, not me, not anyone. These gifts are given to us solely out of God’s grace and mercy, without any worthiness on our part, but for the sake of the perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, who came to earth as one of us, who covered Himself with human flesh and lived among us in this fallen, dying world.

Jesus lived the perfect, obedient life that Lorraine, you, and I would not, indeed, could not live. Jesus gave His life on the cross for the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world—Lorraine’s, yours, and mine included. Jesus rose again from the grave giving us the certain hope of our own resurrection to eternal life. Jesus ascended to heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf, even as He has promised to be with us always in His means of grace.

God, in His mercy and goodness, still condescends to come to us poor, miserable sinners in ways we can receive Him. Luther writes: “[God] says, ‘Man shall not see Me and live.’ Therefore He put before us an image of Himself, because He shows Himself to us in such a manner that we can grasp Him. In the New Testament we have Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, absolution, and the ministry of the Word” (AE 2:46).

God’s Presence was with Lorraine throughout her life. On the day she was baptized in May 1930, the Holy Spirit came to live in the temple of Lorraine’s body, bringing forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Holy Baptism, Lorraine was clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covered all her sin. She was buried with Christ into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, she too might walk in newness of life. United with Him in a death like His, she shall certainly be united in a resurrection like His.

Regularly throughout her life, Lorraine entered the rest of the Lord as she made time to hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it in the Divine Service, Bible study, and daily devotions. The Lord came to be with her in His Supper, feeding her His very body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of her faith. As Lorraine confessed her sins, Christ spoke forgiveness to her in His Word of absolution. And when Lorraine prayed, she could do so with the certainty that God heard her prayers for the sake of Christ, and she could speak with the Father as Moses did; that is, “as a man speaks to his friend.”

In His means of grace—His Word and Sacraments—the Lord brought His promised rest to Lorraine throughout her life, up until the day of her death, when she entered His glory, His Presence, and rest for eternity. She now lives in the Presence of the Lord with all the saints who have gone before, looking upon His glorious face unhindered by sin. Having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, they serve Him day and night. He shelters them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, for the Lamb will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

One day, by God’s grace, we will join them there.

For the sake of Jesus Christ, may God grant this to us all. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Lamb Will Be Their Shepherd

FB_IMG_1557613509486Click here to listen to this sermon

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Each year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Fittingly, all our readings today give us insight to the relationship we have with Jesus as sheep and Shepherd and the benefits of that relationship.

Our Gospel takes place during the Feast of Dedication, also called Hanukkah, the Jewish national holiday celebrating the purification of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus in December 165 B.C. Jesus was walking in the temple area near Solomon’s colonnade. It offered some protection from the winter’s cold. The Jewish religious leaders encircled Jesus and asked Him point blank: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Sad to say, they didn’t really want to know the truth. What Jesus had already told them, what He had done, and the way He lived in His Father’s name were clear evidence that He is the Christ. But they did not want to believe. Similarly, today, many people claim to want to know exactly who Jesus is, yet they ignore His own words and ways. “You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you are not among My sheep.” Those who are not among God’s chosen flock turn deaf ears and blinded eyes to Jesus.

In contrast to such unbelievers, Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. He knows them and they follow Him. The relationship between Jesus and His followers is intimate, personal. And because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the relationship is eternal. He gives His sheep eternal life. They will not perish forever. No one can snatch them out of His hand.

What words of comfort for you and me! We are secure forever with Christ Jesus. Our security is locked up with the Father in heaven. No one can take us from Jesus’ hands because that would mean seizing us from God the Father’s hands. And no one can do that. What is true of the Son also is true of the Father.

Jesus’ words are clear. He is from God. He is the Son of God. He is God. He is the Christ. “I and the Father are one,” he concludes.

It’s not enough to gather from His words only that He and the Father think alike or have a harmonious relationship or treat His sheep alike. Jesus is speaking of being one essence with the Father, of being God. And that’s exactly how Jesus’ enemies understand Him. To them, Jesus’ words sounded like blasphemy, so they pick up stones to carry out the penalty described in Leviticus for blasphemers. Their hatred and anger cannot be contained. They are ready to ignore the legal need for a trial. They are ready to carry out capital punishment even though they know by law that only the Roman government has that authority.

But no one will take Jesus’ life. He will lay it down of His own accord when the time is right. And He will raise it again. He will give His sheep eternal life, and they will never perish, and no enemy will snatch them out of His hand.

Jesus, in our Gospel, warns of enemies from outside of the Church; Paul, in our First Reading, warns of those from within—false prophets, fierce wolves. He encourages the undershepherds of Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.

Paul understands that a preacher must answer to God for the message he preaches or fails to preach. By saying, “I am innocent of the blood of all,” he is expressing his confidence that no one will go to eternal death because Paul has failed to preach the truth to him.

God’s will is that all men turn in “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” All the teaching of the Bible and all true preaching centers in this. To alter any of God’s Law or God’s Gospel is to misrepresent God’s will. To say more or to say less than God’s Word says can make a pastor guilty of someone’s blood, make him the cause of someone’s eternal damnation.

Shepherds feed and lead the flock. Pastors feed and lead the Church of God. The Holy Spirit has made them overseers, supervisors, for that purpose. As undershepherds, pastors are to guard themselves and the whole congregation. Paul uses the picture of a flock because he is thinking of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep, the God who bought the Church “with His own blood.”

That is a striking expression, so striking that some copyists and editors and commentators have tried to change it. That’s unfortunate. The phrase, “God’s blood,” reminds us that when God became man, He did not stop being God. As the God-Man He is not two persons but one person. What the Man did God was doing. What belongs to the Man belongs to God. When Jesus’ blood was shed, God’s blood was shed. When God bought the Church, He did it with His own blood.

The savage wolves of whom Paul speaks are false prophets of the same kind Jesus warns about in Matthew 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” No church anywhere at anytime can be complacent about the possibility of false teachers. Wolves kill sheep. False teachers kill souls. That is why we take our doctrine and practices so seriously. Though some misunderstand it as mean-spirited or intolerant or arrogant, it is actually most loving—a matter of eternal life and death.

False prophets generally do not come from outside but arise from within. They do not oppose the truth in a straightforward way and say that it is false. Rather, they distort it. They use the right words but twist and pervert them. Such lies and distortions must be opposed and exposed with the truth of God’s Word.

Who can keep the pastors faithful in their work and protect the Church from the savage wolves? Only God. How will God do that? Through the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The Word proclaims God’s grace, imparts God’s grace, and keeps us in God’s grace. That Word will make us grow to Christian maturity and gives us a share of the blessings that God has for His saints.

Paul knows that he will not always be there to help the Ephesians, but God with His Word will help them as He has even while Paul is there building them up in the eternal inheritance the Lord Jesus has prepared for them by His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. So He does today in God’s Word written through the prophets and Christ’s apostles and spoken by His undershepherds, His called and ordained servants. Listen to Him!

In our Gospel, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Then He promises: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” In Revelation, St. John gives us a sneak peek at the eternal life in the new heaven and earth where the Lamb will be the Shepherd forever.

The people in the great crowd which John sees before the throne of God in heaven are coming out of “the great tribulation.” That crowd represents the whole Church as if it is already triumphant, as if it is already complete, as it will be at the resurrection at the End.

The crowd of saints comes out of the great tribulation victorious because they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Because of the redeeming death of Jesus Christ, the crowd of people stands pure and holy in the presence of God. With sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, and covered now with the righteousness of the Lamb, they share in the victory of the Lamb before the heavenly Father. They stand before the throne of God and “worship Him day and night” (Revelation 7:15).

The one who sits upon the throne “will shelter them in His presence,” literally, “spread His tent over them, the same word used in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, He “tented” among God’s people. It could be that, in using this word, God is condescending to our human understanding of existence and manner of speaking. But more likely, the word is used to direct attention to the fact that God’s people, raised from the dead will live intimately in the flesh with God in the new heaven and new earth, and in a familial, intimate way, He will dwell with us in a manner that can be experienced also with the human senses. And because God will tent among His saints in heaven, “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (Revelation 7:16). All our greatest needs will be taken care of!

As we reflect on what John saw and heard, we can’t help but be comforted with this thought: God always keeps His promises. John sees the final end of God’s promises concerning His people at rest in the presence of God and the Lamb, never again to be pained by the harshness of life we formerly experienced it in our earthly existence. In our new life with God, the Lamb “will be [our] Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17).

This relationship between God and His people, as pictured by His being our Shepherd, was revealed so beautifully in the 23rd Psalm. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord promised His people that like a shepherd He would look after them in order to rescue them and care for them. In order to carry out this Word, God then promised to provide His people with a shepherd. The promised shepherd would be His servant, born in Bethlehem from the seed of David. In the verses, preceding our Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd.

Now in our text, John sees and hears the final outcome of these promises. The Shepherd of the Lord has been provided. By His death and resurrection, the servant David has rescued God’s people. As their Good Shepherd He tends the flock, caring for them and leading them through the great tribulation to “springs of living waters—eternal life—already now on earth, then in heaven with God, and finally forever in the new heaven and new earth.

A final truth describes the rest and the peace of the crowd of saints before God’s throne in heaven: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Tears and laments are part of the experience and character of the faithful people of God while on earth. Tears are shed over one’s sins and the sins of others, over the ruin and sufferings experienced by others, over one’s own afflictions, when confronted with God’s anger, when alone and in sorrow, at death, and at other times of sadness.

In this life the shedding of tears is as much—at times even more—the experience of Christians as are joy and laughter. But it is the gift of God’s grace to turn the weeping and sorrow into joy, for He has promised a day when “the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). John now sees the complete and final fulfillment of this promise of God. The final word describing the peace and joy of the saints before God in heaven says it all: “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Lord is your Good Shepherd. You hear His voice through His Word and follow Him. He feeds you on the green pasture of His Supper, His own body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. No one will ever snatch you out of His hand. The Lamb will be your Shepherd forever. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Cast Your Net Again!

The Second Miraculous Draught of Fish
“The Second Miraculous Draught of Fish” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

As day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered Him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish (John 21:4-6).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

This last week, both of our LC-MS seminaries held their call services for new candidates in the ministry. I’m pleased to announce that Jesse Baker received a call to Zion Lutheran Church in Hardwick, MN. We thank God for providing a pastor for Zion and we look forward to working with him in our Pipestone Circuit and Minnesota South District.

Call days tend to get pastors reminiscing and/or commiserating about their own call night. An almost universal disappointment seems to be the sermon for the placement service. I suspect that this might be in part because pastors—especially those just coming out of the seminary—tend to be the sharpest critics. It may also be that the preacher realizes this may be his only chance to straighten out these novices before they get in the congregation, and so the sermons tend to be long and heavy on the Law. It might also have something to do with fact that the intended audience of these sermons is more interested in finding out where they will be going to spend their next few years of life and ministry than anything else at this point. Candidates for the ministry probably don’t listen to the sermon on call night much better than the couple listens to the sermon in their wedding service.

This prompted one pastor, Rev. William Cwirla, to offer his own advice for the sermon on call night.

Simple. 10 minutes max. Basic outline:

  1. You’re incompetent.
  2. Christ is your competence.
  3. Go where you’re sent; Christ will bless you.

It’s a good suggestion. A fitting outline for candidate placement services and for impromptu breakfasts at the beach and for Divine Service in little congregations in small towns in southwest Minnesota.

In last week’s text, John wrote what seemed to be the perfect ending for his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). Perfect conclusion, end of story.

But then, curiously enough, there’s one more chapter in John’s Gospel, our text for today. The seven disciples seem to be asking themselves, “What are we going to do now?” Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” It doesn’t take much coaxing to get the others to join him. After all, they are in Galilee, waiting for the Lord to come as He had said He would. They’re right next to big lake on which most of them had made a living before being called by Jesus. So, they set out by boat for a customary night of fishing. But they don’t catch anything. As my Uncle Warren would say, “They got skunked!”

Just as the day was breaking, Jesus comes and stands on the shore. He calls out to them much like one fisherman might call out to other fishermen. “Hey guys, you haven’t caught anything to eat, have you?” “No,” they answer, but they haven’t caught on yet that it is Jesus. When Jesus tells them to cast their net out again, this time on the right side of the boat, they do so without much thought of how silly this advice is to experienced fishermen who have worked these waters all their life, the whole last night without any success, or about whom it is who is telling them to do so.

But when the catch is so big they can’t haul the net into the boat, their attention turns back to the man on the shore. John, perhaps remembering that earlier catch of fish when they began to follow Jesus, says to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”

Peter wastes no time. He puts on His outer garment and throws himself into the sea so he can swim to the beach ahead of the rest. This is a big change! Do you remember what Peter did the last time Jesus enabled the disciples to make a great catch? Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” That was the natural reaction of a man who had not yet seen the cross, one who had not experienced Jesus’ forgiveness in the shadow of that cross.

How different it is this time! Peter jumps into the water. He can’t wait to be near Jesus. This is the natural reaction of those who have believed in the cross and resurrection. See, by this time, Easter has happened. Believing in the crucified and risen Christ creates a completely new nature. Now inside is a person who knows he’s forgiven, loved by God. The new person inside knows he’s going to be with God forever in heaven—and he can’t wait to be with Him. And because he believes that, there’s this whole new nature that’s eager to do something for Christ.

So what’s he going to do? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s finish this story.

The others follow Peter in the boat, dragging the net full of fish with them about a hundred yards to shore. When the disciples reach the shore, they see breakfast is already cooking, fish on a bed of coals and bread to go with it. It appears they are surprised to see the fish cooking, although no one asks Jesus where He got it. Instead, Jesus tells them take care of the catch, sort out the “keepers” from the small ones, and He’ll get breakfast ready.

Peter, ever quick to oblige the Lord, climbs into the boat. Although the net is too heavy to lift into the boat, he manages with the help of the others to drag it onto the beach. It is loaded with 153 large fish but doesn’t tear, unlike the net from the miraculous catch early in Jesus’ ministry.

Imagine how the disciples must have felt as Jesus invites them to have breakfast with Him. They know it is Jesus, but this is only His third appearance to them as a group since He died. The resurrected Lord, who brings forgiveness and life by giving Himself up to death on the cross, certainly deserves our service. But Jesus is the Host. He serves them bread and fish for breakfast.

But Jesus still isn’t finished with His disciples. Although our Gospel stops at verse 14, Jesus does not. He takes Peter aside and restores him as an apostle. Peter denied Jesus three times; so three times, Jesus tells him to feed His sheep. Jesus doesn’t just appear to give fish and daily bread. He appears to give forgiveness, again and again. After all, that is why He died. And that is why He is risen. And before He ascends into heaven, Jesus gives His disciples this same ministry of forgiveness and life and promises to send His Holy Spirit to help them.

It’s possible to recognize a number of similarities between the disciples in the text and the Church today. For example: It was after the resurrection and the disciples were together. To follow Jesus after His resurrection is to be together with other believers.

Not only were they together, but they did what they knew how to do. That is, they returned to their vocation as fishermen. Easter doesn’t mean the end of life or work, but rather faithful living and working in a new light.

Before Jesus entered the story, the disciples had caught nothing despite working all night. The Church’s work is only productive insofar as Jesus directs and effects it.

Jesus provided for the disciples. He provided direction for their fishing. He provided the large catch of fish into their nets. He provided food for them back on land. Jesus takes the initiative with us, too. He comes to us in our everyday vocations and graciously provides for all our needs—bodily and spiritually. In fact, Jesus does everything. Jesus feeds and equips us for the work He has for us to do.

Jesus is the one who plans and makes it all happen. The best-laid plans of men are meaningless. Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” but all night they catch nothing. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Without Jesus, all our fishing for men is just as fruitless. But then Jesus says, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” and things go very well. Jesus is the one who catches fish. We just go where He tells us, casting our nets again and again.

Many people might say that Trosky or Jasper or even Pipestone, Minnesota is not the best spot to go fishing for men. Church growth experts are going to say, if you want to grow the Church you have to plant churches in growing suburbs and vibrant communities. But our job isn’t to grow the Church, but rather to be faithful where God has placed us. To cast our nets again and again at our Saviour’s call. He will provide the growth to His Church, when and where He wills.

Any good fisherman knows sometimes when you go fishing, you’re going to get skunked. Not many days in the mission field are 153-large-fish-days! But you won’t catch any fish if you don’t cast out the nets. And the more often you go out on the lake and cast the nets, the more often you’re probably going to catch something. Feel like it’s hopeless? Feel like you’ve been skunked? Take the Lord at His Word. Cast your nets again!

As fishers of men, we don’t plan how many “fish” we’re going to catch. We just go about our business—fishing because we’re fishers of men, sharing Christ just because we’re Christians, people who ourselves are loved, forgiven, going to heaven—doing what come naturally. We leave the results in the hands of the Lord.

Every Christian does this naturally. New Christians aren’t made by how well the pastor entertains us or how much the songs stir our emotions. No, new Christians just naturally happen as we seize the opportunities that God presents to us to share the story of Jesus and His love.

As a pastor, I get lots of chances to tell people about Jesus. But the four cases where I actually know God let me have a hand in making new Christians were the easiest, most natural: when Aimee and I brought Jessi and Katie and Logan and Marissa to be baptized. We did essentially nothing. I wasn’t even a pastor yet, so I didn’t even do the baptizing; but through the water and His Word, Jesus made four new believers. And as they continued in that Word, they’ve grown in their faith and have shared it with their friends and acquaintances as well. And now they have their own children to be baptized and to tell the story of Jesus and His love. See, for all of us who’ve experienced and believed in Easter, making new Christians comes quite naturally. Jesus does all the work, even as you go about your daily vocations.

In the meanwhile, Jesus sustains you with His means of grace. He feeds you, not a miraculous catch of fish and bread, but with His Holy Supper, His very body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.

So, by God’s grace, may you use the opportunities God places in your path to share the wonderful story of Jesus and His love and forgiveness. May you all be fishers of men, willing to cast out Christ’s Gospel net into the mission field here and abroad, with your personal confession of faith, with your prayers, and financial support. May you all be doing what comes naturally—living in the grace of God.

Though you may feel incompetent, Christ is your competence. Go where you’re planted; Christ will bless you. He will provide for you. He will feed you. He will sustain you. He will give you strength and life. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.