Sermons, Uncategorized

Remember the Whole Way That the Lord Has Led You

“The Gathering of the Manna” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

Forty years earlier, Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt toward  the Promised Land. Now they are camped, looking across the Jordan River to the land that God had promised to their forefathers. Not able to go into the Promised Land himself, Moses recounts what had happened during the wilderness wandering and he prepares them for the new land they will now receive. “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

Forty years it had taken them to make the 300-mile-long journey, an average movement of about 100 feet per day. Obviously, there had been a few bumps in the road along the way. The people ran out of water more than once, which the Lord had provided miraculously. They ran out of food and complained until the Lord sent manna falling from the sky. This went on for forty years. Forty years of living in tents in the wilderness. Forty years in which the Lord had made sure that their clothes didn’t wear out and their feet didn’t swell. Forty years in which they had constantly complained. Forty years in which they had rebelled against God’s authority and the leaders He had placed over them. Forty years where they suffered needlessly for their stubborn rebelliousness and idolatry—fiery serpents and scorpions, earthquakes and plagues, consuming fire from heaven.

It didn’t have to be like that. In the first year, the Lord had brought them to the brink of the Promised Land and was ready to send them in to conquer Canaan. Their spies affirmed the fruitful bounty of the land. But they refused to enter Canaan and take possession of the land promised to them. Though the Lord assured them that He had given their enemies into their hand, that He Himself would fight on their behalf, they were too frightened, did not believe the Lord, and refused to go. And so He led the 2.5 million Israelites on the not-so-scenic route, wandering in the wilderness for forty years.

The Lord says that He did it so “that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” The Lord knew that, once they reached the Promised Land and had all its abundance, they’d be likely to forget that it was all a gift from Him. So in preparation for the Promised Land, He humbled them. He put them in a situation where they said, “We cannot survive out here on our own. We need the Lord to keep us alive.”

So He did: and to remind them that He is the One who sustains life from day to day, He provided just enough manna for them to live from day to day. The Lord kept it up, too: the manna didn’t stop falling until they entered the Promised Land. Thus they learned from the humbling and the testing that the Lord would provide for them all things. And perhaps that trust would come easier for sinners in the wilderness than in the Promised Land. It’s easy to turn wealth and abundance into idols that make you think you don’t need God. Poverty and need can have the effect of making you see your need for the Lord’s mercy.

The purpose of God’s testing was to lead Israel to trust Him more fully. The reason He provided such miraculous physical blessings was to show His people that they needed and that He could provide far more than physical blessings. With His Word, the Lord could meet all their physical needs as well as the still greater needs of their souls. Without God’s Word, physical blessings by themselves will never be enough. Food alone won’t give life. Life has deeper dimensions that only God can satisfy. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

There was more to it, too: it was a matter of discipline. Moses declares, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.” Some of the discipline in the wilderness was punishment. There’s no hiding the fact that they were in the wilderness for forty years because the generation of adults that came out of Egypt refused to believe that God would give them the Promised Land, but instead gave in to the god of fear and believed that they’d be slaughtered by those in Canaan. Because they doubted God and refused to enter the land He gave, the Lord declared that none of the Israelites would enter until that generation died off.

 But not all of it was punishment. Discipline also means training: and once again, the Lord was training His people to trust in Him. As He provided food and deliverance from danger in the wilderness, so He would give them victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land.

One more thing about those forty years: they had a starting point. The Israelites weren’t always in the wilderness. They’d spent 400 years in Egypt as slaves. But the Lord rescued them from that slavery—rescued them wondrously, miraculously, and dramatically. The wilderness might not be the greatest place to be, but it’s a far better situation than slavery and death. That’s especially true since it wasn’t their destination. The wilderness was just the time between the slavery and the Promised Land. Throughout those years, the Lord would humble them, test them, and discipline them. He would also provide for them, protect them, and give them the Promised Land full of every good thing. Because of this, they were to “remember the whole way that the Lord [their] God [had] led [them].”

It’s no coincidence that Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. As Israel was baptized through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus was baptized and went straight to His temptation for forty days. He did perfectly what the people of Israel utterly failed to do. Where the people sinned against God again and again, Jesus remained perfectly sinless and obedient. Where they needed to be humbled, He was perfectly humble. Where Israel panicked because there was momentarily no food, Jesus fasted and trusted. In fact, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to prove He is the Son of God, Jesus quoted this Old Testament lesson: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Always humble, He met every test and remained the disciplined Son.

Why did He do so? He wasn’t just re-enacting wilderness life to see what it might have been like for His ancestors. He did this to redeem them—and to redeem you, too. He lived that perfect life to credit you with His perfect obedience. Then He went to the cross; and on the cross, His Father punished Him with the judgment for the sin of the world—yours included. He was crucified for our sins, then raised up again on the third day. That is why He came, what He came to do.

All of this frames your life on earth; and, actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day tomorrow. I pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, though I’m guessing for many of you, it’s not going to be the Norman Rockwell kind of holiday with lots of extended family that you’re used to. COVID lockdown, mask mandates, and social gathering restrictions will probably put a damper on the festivities. You may also have all sort of other issues tugging at the corner of your mind or elbowing their way front and center.

There’s a reason for this: you’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the wilderness. You’re not in the Promised Land—not yet! You’re still in the land of fiery serpents and scorpions, of thirst and hunger—or cancer and COVID, fear and anger, bad decisions and troubled relationships, depression or substance abuse. That’s what living in the wilderness is like, and the troubles you face will be used by the devil to leave you thankless and hopeless and doubting God. But you have so much to be thankful for!

There’s first article stuff—the daily bread that the Lord provides for you—like clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, family, and all your goods. It’s easy to take for granted, but the poorest in our nation still have more than much of the rest of the world. You have much because the Lord gives it to you and because the Lord sustains it from day to day. For this, you should truly give thanks—not just once a year, but daily, and likely far more than you do.

But there’s still more to be thankful for. The Lord also gives you those other strange gifts that He gave Israel in the wilderness: namely, the humbling, the testing, and the discipline. Life in this wilderness is a rocky road. You will hurt, you will lack, you will sin, you’ll stumble and fall and fail. And you’ll wonder why the Lord chooses to do things this way.

The best answer we can give from Scripture is that you’re His children. The setbacks and troubles that you face are a consequence of being a sinner in a sinful world, but their effects are not random acts of fate. The Lord has made you His children—His sons, He says, in order to assure you that you are His heirs. As you make your way through this wilderness, remember that you’re in the wilderness, and that’s already a step up: once you were enslaved in sin, dead, and headed for hell. But the Lord brought you up out of your “Egypt” through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism, all for the sake of Christ who died for you. For those apart from Christ, this world is the beginning of hell. But you’ve already been rescued, redeemed by the blood of Christ: this wilderness is on the way to the Promised Land of heaven.

So the Lord, who has made you His children, disciplines you as a father disciplines his sons. That’s not an enjoyable thing: the book of Hebrews tells us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). In fact, Hebrews also tells us, in the mystery of the Incarnation, that “Although [Jesus] was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). So it is for you. When you lack—be it food or peace or health—He uses that for good, to discipline you to cast your cares upon Him and trust in Him. He tests you, because sinners like you and me need constant testing, constant redirection, back to repentance and trust in Him.

The Lord is treating you like beloved children. If He did not, you would be God-forsaken, left to yourself—perhaps with a nice life, but with no hope. Troubles in your life would not be used for a father’s discipline, but only as punishment for your sin. So where you are so humbled, disciplined, and tested, God will use these things also for your good. Where you have been tested, you can be God’s instrument and a strong advocate for those who are tested like you. Where the affliction overwhelms you as something greater than you can bear, know that Christ has borne it for you. If such things continue to point you back to Christ and guard against falling in love with the wilderness, then that focus back on the cross is a blessing indeed and something to give thanks for.

And always remember this: you’re in the wilderness. The Lord has led you out of the slavery of sin and death thus far, and you have a destination. The Promised Land of Heaven is yours, where you have the certain hope of eternal life free from all sin and struggle, where God will wipe every tear from your eyes.

A blessed Thanksgiving Day to you all; and rejoice, my friends. The Lord is treating you as His beloved children, because you are His beloved children.

Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you. He has led you out of death to life, out of sin to righteousness, out of hell to the Promised Land of Heaven. For Jesus’ sake, 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

You Turn Things Upside Down!

20180825_133900Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’” (Isaiah 29:15–16).

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

Like the plot of a good action thriller it goes down to the wire. At the last minute, God mercifully intervenes to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian horde poised at the city gate. But something is wrong. The people do not see beyond the immediate threat they have just avoided. They fail to recognize the hand of the Lord or their sin and idolatry that brought them so close to utter ruin. God’s deliverance does nothing to turn them to repentance and the promises of the Messiah. And so the deliverance will only buy them a few more years until the Babylonians come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Now that’s judgment!

But Isaiah reveals another aspect of God’s judgment: He will give the people of Jerusalem what they want! They are to continue in their unbelief and rejection as long as they wish. They will see God’s deliverance but will not turn away from sin. They will hear the message of the Gospel but continue to resist God’s grace. God will even prevent them from hearing and seeing the truth and believing it!

The Old Testament is a history of God’s dealing with sinful humanity by grace. No human effort or thought moves God to create Adam. Or call Abraham to be the father of His people. Or bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Or promise a Messiah who will undo sin and overcome death. No human faithfulness makes God fulfill His promise. God does all these things for His own sake solely by grace without any merit or worthiness on anyone’s part.

Thank God! Many believe His wonderful promises and trust in His grace. But not all do! The human heart can be so perverse, so unbelieving, so rebellious. Not long after God brings the Israelites out of Egypt, they make a golden calf and worship it. The Lord threatens to consume them with His wrath, but Moses intervenes. And for the next forty years, God patiently endures their grumbling while He tests His people in the wilderness.

During the period of the judges, the people of Israel repeatedly sin against God. He disciplines His rebellious, idolatrous people, sending them difficulties to call them to their senses. They repent and return to the Lord. But the pattern persists. And the sinful cycle escalates. Things get so bad that at the end of Judges we read this sad news: “Everyone did what right in his own eyes” (21:25).

When we come to Isaiah’s day, we reach another level in the war between faith and apostasy. God’s people can no longer even be moved by His discipline. The close call with Assyria doesn’t wake them up. They refuse to listen to the prophets that God sends them. They do not return to the Lord. When they hear the truth, it does not penetrate their faithless hearts, but only confirms their unbelief.

Still, God’s promises are fulfilled. There is still a remnant who remain faithful to the Lord. They trust in Him and treasure the wonderful promises of the Messiah who will save them from sin, death, and the devil. Isaiah ministers to them, giving them hope, strength, and comfort.

A remnant remains, but the majority understand nothing of these promises. Their hearts are far from the Lord. That’s not to say they’ve left the outer trappings of the one true faith. They are very religious. They still have the temple… priests… and rituals. But these are now used for idol worship. Blinded by their sin, they believe this is pleasing to the one true God, but they have lost the true essence of God’s revelation. They do not understand His grace and the promises of the Messiah. No wonder they don’t recognize and accept Him when He comes.

This passage does not speak only of people whose hearts are not in their religion. It also speaks of those whose hearts are sincere and devout but whose beliefs are wrong and without Christ. Such people believe they are worshiping the true God when they follow rules taught by men, or doctrines hatched by demons. Many are devout and zealous in their beliefs, but they are without Christ. Such was Saul of Tarsus before his conversion on the Damascus Road. So it is with the devout adherent of Islam or the sincere Buddhist or dedicated Latter Day Saint.

Even those within the visible Church can have hearts that are far from the Lord. When they abandon the message of the cross and adopt social issues and political agendas, they begin to adhere to rules taught by men. Whenever the free and gracious gifts of God become rewards earned by human behavior, worship and religion become hollow ritual, not meaningful spiritual communion with the Lord.

Isaiah compares the sinful and rebellious human heart to a potter and his clay pot, imagery that dates back to the account of God forming Adam. For the clay to command the potter turns things upside down. How foolish for the pot to deny its maker, to challenge his authority, or to claim that its maker has no knowledge or skill. Yet sinners do deny their Maker and so challenge the knowledge and action of the Lord and Creator of all. Think about it. Every time we sin, every time we write our own religion, we do, in fact, claim to be superior to the Lord. When God says, “Do not…,” the sinful heart says, “I know better. I’ll do it anyway.” When God says, “By grace you are saved through faith,” the perverse human heart says, “I must have to do something to earn God’s favor.”

Sin turns everything upside down. The sinful heart does not want the God of the Bible—the God who promised and sent Christ. The rebellious heart resists the grace of God and wants instead a god without the cross of Christ. A god who accepts good intentions and sincere effort. A god who will not punish sin. A god “who accepts us just the way we are.” A god who ignores human depravity.

Through Isaiah, the Lord declares to such people (to people like us): “This people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men.” The Lord isn’t about to be molded by His rebellious people to fit their sinful desires. Instead, He condemns their idol worship for the false doctrine that it is.

The warning is simple, frightening, and timely: for those who do not have a proper fear of God, the Scriptures will remain a sealed book. Unbelievers cannot comprehend God’s Word. However, this doesn’t stop them from thinking they do—that they have the correct understanding and believers have it wrong. Thus, God’s Word will often be invoked to defend all sorts of false teaching and sin.

That’s the warning. Here’s the Good News: the Lord is always faithful. For along with the words of judgment, the Lord also repeats His promise of the Messiah. He declares that He will “do wonderful things.” In that day the deaf shall hear… the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”

You hear of the Holy One in our Gospel. Jesus is making the blind see and the deaf hear. He is giving hope and joy to the poor and the meek. Wonderful things are happening! The Pharisees and the scribes are unhappy with this Messiah, though. He is turning their whole world upside down. And their present complaint is a biggie: Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before they eat!

Don’t laugh. This is a serious matter to the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not in the Bible, but they’re teaching it’s a sin to not wash your hands before you eat. Just to be clear, I do appreciate good hygiene. I’m not against the signs posted in restaurant lavatories: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.” But what’s going on here is far more sinister.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with germs.  The hand washing they insist upon is to get rid of any uncleanness they might pick up from contact with the Gentiles!

But this is just a symptom of something even more insidious happening here. In their painstaking care of the Law, the Pharisees have falsely concluded that you’re saved by keeping the Law—most certainly including all the little rules they’ve added to it themselves. They’re teaching salvation by works!

How can this be? After all, this is not what the Bible teaches, and they are the professional biblical interpreters and teachers. But because they have no faith in the promised Messiah, they cannot rightly understand the Word. However, they are completely convinced that they’ve gotten the Word right. And if they are right, that can only mean that Jesus is wrong! Thus, they reject Jesus, all the while believing that it is the godly thing to do. They’ve turned everything upside down.

They’ve rewritten God’s plan for salvation, and now they expect the Son of God to conform to their revision. But once again, the Master Potter refuses to be molded by the clay. And He rebukes them for their unbelief. You know what happens then: the Pharisees and scribes plot to kill Jesus, eventually succeeding. If God isn’t going to approve of their religion, then it’s time to kill off God.

God gives us His Law and we have two possible reactions. The first reaction is this: We realize that we are failing miserably, and try as hard as we might, we cannot keep God’s holy Law perfectly. At this point, if we don’t hear about God’s grace, about Christ coming to keep the Law for us, we are left in despair and hopelessness. The other reaction to the Law is just as dangerous. We may look at the Law and conclude that we are doing just fine. This, I fear, is the most common among us. We are hypocrites, Pharisees at heart.

How often when you hear a preacher talk about the sins of society do you think to yourself: “Well, I least I’m not doing that!” Dear people of God, it doesn’t matter what sin we speak of, you and I are guilty of it. Jesus always pushes God’s Law to our breaking point. He sets the bar so high that no one can reach it. He does this not to push us to despair but to draw us to Him as our Savior.

It is only in seeing that we are “poor miserable sinners” who “sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone” that we can see our total need for Christ—His saving work for us, His atoning death as paying the debt for our sin, His perfect life of holiness and righteousness lived for us. That is the purpose of the Law. To show you your sin and spiritual poverty. To drive you to repentance, casting yourself upon the mercy of God. So that you might behold the wonderful things God has done for you in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Wonder upon wonder, Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, has come for you. He lived a perfectly holy life and kept the Law for you. He laid down His sinless life for you on the cross and then took it up again for you.

Ascended to the Father’s right hand, He continues to be with you always in His means of grace. Through His holy Word preached and read, He speaks His grace to you. He gives you faith. He opens your ears to hear the words of His book. He opens your eyes to see His cross. In Holy Baptism, He cleanses you of every spot, stain, and blemish of sin. In Holy Communion, He feeds you with His body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto life everlasting.

All that you might see and hear and believe this wonderful Good News: 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.