Sermons, Uncategorized

Sent to Preserve a Remnant for Life

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“Having become the favorite the Pharaoh, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to request food supplies for their country suffering from famine. He makes himself known to them and pardons them (Genesis XLV, 1-8)” by Marc Chagall

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So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8).

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

A band of brothers have been keeping a shameful secret. Now, as the saying goes, “the chickens are coming home to roost.”

These brothers, the sons of Jacob, haven’t seen their younger brother, Joseph, in over twenty years. He was barely old enough to shave when they, fueled by jealousy and hatred, had sold him to slave-traders, then covered up their crime by faking his death. For all they know, Joseph is nothing but dust in the Egyptian wind by now, driven to an early death by the rigors of servitude.

But dead or alive, Joseph is a daily living reality in the consciences of his brothers. More than two decades after they’d tossed him into a pit, his cries for mercy are still echoing in the depths of their souls. More than two decades after they’d sat around that pit and ate a meal together, they can still taste the bitter memory of their heartless deed. More than two decades after their despicable deed, they still remember handing their father Joseph’s bloody robe and letting the old man think his favorite son had met his demise at the hand of some feral beast. Now, their shared secret stalks them night and day.

So pervasive is its influence upon them that when they experience trouble, they trace its ultimate source to the betrayal of their brother. When they kneel before the second-in-command of all Egypt and he accuses them of being spies and demands they bring their youngest brother down to Egypt as proof of their honesty, they lament to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21). In their minds, that dirty little secret from over two decades earlier is coming back to haunt them.

Once again, out of necessity because of the continuing famine, the ten plus their baby brother Benjamin find themselves kneeling in the presence of this powerful man, and he is making life difficult for them. Judah, evidently learning something from his past sins, refuses to leave Benjamin behind, because he knows that returning without him would likely be the last nail in his old father’s coffin. Instead, he begs to take Benjamin’s place himself.

The tender scene that is about to unfold in that room is much too private to be shared with outsiders. The man therefore dismisses everybody but the brothers. Then he breaks down and weeps aloud. The strangeness, sternness, and sharpness are gone from his voice now, as he speaks to the brothers in Hebrew, no longer through an interpreter. “I am Joseph!” he says. “Is my father alive?”

Imagine the shock and terror, when they hear him say, “I am Joseph!” Sin is the great destroyer, the great tension maker. Until the brothers have been assured that the barrier between them and him is gone, they will have no peace of mind.

“Come near to me, please,” Joseph urges. We can easily imagine how the brothers have kept their distance. Joseph now shows them not only with words but with actions that he feels no bitterness toward them, that he has only feelings of love toward them. There is no sadness, no anger in his heart; there should be none in theirs, now that God has given them back to one another.

Through the eyes of faith, Joseph has been able to recognize what God has been working to achieve. Using such unlikely building materials as the hateful and misguided actions of the brothers two decades earlier, God has constructed a plan to save many lives, including the lives of the important family still living in famine-plagued Canaan. “God sent me to preserve life,” Joseph tells them. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth.” Here is the key to the entire narrative. The brothers had sold Joseph to Egypt out of hatred and spite. God overruled their evil intent, using their action to preserve a remnant, a precious handful of His people, through a crisis that now threatened them with annihilation.

There is no time to waste. For five more years, the famine in Canaan is only going to grow more severe. Joseph’s main concern is for his aged father, who has already mourned the loss of his son for twenty years, and who, no doubt, is waiting anxiously for the brothers’ return. “Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children.’”

The words keep pouring from Joseph’s lips, because he can see his brothers are having difficulty believing their long-lost brother is not only still alive but is their friend. He is not a powerful man who will take revenge long overdue, but a loving brother who wants only to reconcile. Joseph speaks directly to them in their own language, they hear him with their own ears and see him with their own eyes.

Then Joseph lets his arms do the talking. He embraces each of his brothers warmly, until finally the brothers find their voices and speak to him. Tears flow freely, and built-up tensions flow out of them. Up until this time, the brothers have remained silent. Most likely fear and shock have taken their tongue. Or perhaps, they were wondering who is going to tell Dad, and how they might spin it so it did not lay blame at their feet. Finally, the brothers begin to speak to him.

Perhaps you know how those brothers felt. Tucked away in the deep recesses of your being is that dirty little secret that you’ve been carrying around for years. At times you forget it’s there. Then a certain person’s name will come up, or you’ll see something that triggers the memory. Then you’ll feel your secret reach out with two long-nailed fingers and pinch your soul, just to remind you it’s still there.

On other days, your secret seems to have bonded with the beat of your heart, so that like Poe’s villain in the Tell-Tale Heart, the raging pulse of your secret seems obvious to everyone around you. Moreover, it can form a film around your eyes, so that everything is filtered and interpreted through it. When something bad happens, you assume it’s due to your secret. You tell others it’s bad karma or bad luck, but you suspect it’s not. It’s the ghost of your secret, coming back to haunt you, to demand resolution and restitution.

Here’s something for you to ponder. In fact, I suspect you already know this, but let me say it out loud to confirm it: the secret about secrets is that they don’t exist. There is no such thing in all the world as a secret. You see, a secret is no longer a secret when two people know it. And even if you have been so careful as to hide it from the public, from your closest friends, even from your spouse, there is One who knows. He searches the hearts and minds of humanity. He brings out of the darkness what we have hidden: He places our secret sins in the light of His presence (Psalm 90:8). God knows your secret, and because you know that He knows, you ought to just go ahead and admit the fact that you have no secrets.

What you do have is something that humanity has always struggled with ever since the fall: a guilty conscience.

Maybe you can relate more readily with Joseph. You’ve felt firsthand the betrayal of someone close to you. Maybe you’ve even asked the question, “Why did this terrible thing happen to me?” Theologians calls this the problem of evil. How can a good, loving, all-powerful God let horrible things happen?

I’m going to be honest and say right now that there is no truly satisfactory answer to that question this side of heaven. We go on as Christians, not because we fully understand God and His ways, but because we see His true heart in Jesus our Savior. In spite of evil, we know God is good—because we see Jesus. We know He loves us—because Jesus died and rose for us. We continue to walk, even through darkness, because of Jesus. There is no other answer.

But there is another question, a perhaps more pertinent question, and that question might be phrased this way: “What can God do with this evil? What new, good thing can God create using this terrible thing?”

By faith, Joseph came to the conclusion God is able to bring good out of evil. Yes, he had suffered. He’d been falsely accused and thrown into prison. Because long ago, Joseph’s brothers had sold him as a slave into Egypt, he was now in a position to offer help others in a big way. That doesn’t make what Joseph’s brothers did to him any less evil. Kidnapping is kidnapping; selling your brother as a slave will never be on the list of good, moral examples to imitate. But God used that great evil to bring about salvation for many people.

A guilty conscience, the brokenness of abuse and the bitterness of betrayal. Both can lead to fractured relationships and trust issues. Both can lead you away from God. Fortunately, the remedy for both maladies is found in the same place—the cross and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is for those plagued with guilty consciences and those who have suffered abuse at the hands of others.

The Gospel in this story is the clear example it provides of the providence of God. Our God oversees all things—even evil things contrary to His will—to ensure that they serve His will and saving purposes. Three times in this text Joseph makes this point: “God sent me before you to preserve life” (v 5); “God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (v 7); and “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (v 8).

The theology is obvious: God is in control—so much so, that He can even use evil to accomplish His purposes. And what is God’s purpose in this case? “To preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” In using terms like remnant and survivors, Joseph is employing words that elsewhere in the Old Testament are freighted with theological significance. It may well be that in the deliverance of his brothers and his father, Joseph perceives that far more is at stake than the physical survival of twelve human beings and their children. What survives is God’s plan of redemption through a remnant of His chosen people.

The remnant motif begins early in Genesis with Noah and his family and carries through all of Scripture. Despite the threats of their enemies, the failings of their own sinful flesh, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob preserves a remnant of His people to complete His promise of the Messiah. Joseph is called upon to play an integral role in the preservation of this remnant, which includes his brothers and their children. From these few people eventually comes the whole nation of Israel—and from Israel, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Joseph is a type of Christ, one who foreshadows the person and work of our Savior in his own person and work. There are a number of parallels between the two. Both are sent to Egypt against their will: Joseph’s brothers being responsible for his exile there, Herod being responsible for Jesus’ flight there. Joseph is sold into slavery and Christ is delivered to the executioners, Joseph for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28) and Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15), yet in both cases good comes out of evil: the deliverance of Joseph’s family in the first instance, the salvation of the world in the second.

As Joseph forgives his brothers, so Christ cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And both Joseph and Christ, though rejected by their brothers, become the head of the corner of their respective spheres, but still are not ashamed to call their brothers brethren (Hebrews 2:11).

Joseph’s brothers deserved death, but what they received was forgiveness and life—and the life of others. Though their motives and actions were indeed evil, God used it for good. For the saving of the lives of many people, but even more important, the salvation of the world unto eternal life.

God can bring good out of our own evils as well. We may not see how He can do this right now; we may never see it in this world. And that’s hard. But in the end, it’s okay—because we know God’s true heart toward us as we see it in the life, death, and resurrection of our dear Lord Jesus. There on the cross, we see the greatest injustice, the greatest evil done toward the only one whom is truly good, and God turns it into the greatest good ever—the salvation of the world.

Your inheritance as a child of Adam is sin and death, but in Christ you are made alive through His resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:21–22). As you have died with Him in Holy Baptism, so are you raised with Him to newness of life. Instead of serving your desires and harming your neighbors, you live as “sons of the Most High.” You are “merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36). You deal with others as you would have them deal with you (Luke 6:37–38).

As Christ loved you when you were at enmity with Him, as He blessed and prayed for those who abused Him, and as He did good to those who hated Him and hurt Him, so also you “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27–29, 35). For God sent His Son to bear the cross and suffer death, not to condemn the guilty, but “to preserve life.” So does He provide a place for you within His Church, where He is near and deals kindly with “you and your children and your children’s children” (Gen. 45:5–10), giving you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Bringing Out the Best

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“A Seraph Purifies the Lips of Isaiah with a Hot Coal” by Marc Chagall

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And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

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

“Bringing Out the Best.” What comes to your mind when you hear this phrase? Some of you might be reminded of times when your family was planning for company and your mother had you bring out the best china and silverware. Or maybe you remember when your grandma honored your visit by “bringing out the best,” preparing your favorite meal and fixing a special dessert.

Others, hearing the phrase “Bringing Out the Best” might think of rising to a challenge, like being an underdog who works hard to upset the higher ranked team, and who’s able to achieve a level of success no one else thought possible. Though the struggle is difficult, it has the benefit of “bringing out the best” of valuable qualities that had been hidden within you.

“Bringing out the best” in Christian stewardship entails all these things. As the Small Catechism reminds us, God first brings out the best by providing to everyone—Christians and non-Christians—every good thing we have out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. And, for all this it is our duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him.

As Christians, we especially rejoice that our heavenly Father brings out the best by giving His Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior. We rejoice that Jesus brought the very best when He gave His perfect life on the cross for our sins that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. We rejoice that after bringing us to faith, the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify us, ridding our life of sin and bringing out the best of the Christ-like nature given to us in Baptism.

And, in turn, we strive to “bring out the best” in ourselves by the way we faithfully manage the time, talents, and treasures God entrusts to our care. As followers of Christ and stewards of God’s riches, we are especially to be “bringing out the best” by sharing the Good News of Jesus’ work of salvation.

But what happens when you realize that the best that’s required of you is more than you can bring? What happens when your best is not good enough and you find yourself trailing by fifty points at halftime? What happens when the guest deserves a banquet served on the finest china, crystal, and silver and all you have is a few slices of dry bread, paper plates, Styrofoam cups, and “sporks”?

In a way, each of those scenarios describes our situation before God. You and I know our failures. We know our past, a history stained by disobedience, guilt, and shame. By nature, we’re alienated from God, separated from His holiness and opposed to His will. Not exactly prime candidates to be used for God’s call to mission and outreach.

But through our text, we discover that’s exactly what God does. He calls sinful humans to be His children. Then He equips us to bring out the best news ever, to share His message of love and forgiveness with all nations.

That’s what happened to Peter in our Gospel reading for today. And it happened to Isaiah in our text as well. Both found themselves in way over their heads. They realized their best wasn’t close to being enough. In the light of God’s perfect holiness and righteousness, their own hearts seemed so dirty; their own efforts to serve seemed so impotent. Yet despite their many failings, God was able to renew them and equip them to proclaim His Good News. Let’s see how.

In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah saw a vision. What a vision it was! Angels, an earthquake, the Lord Himself. Smoke, fire, and a voice that could bring down the house. By the time Isaiah had seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted all that the Lord had for him to experience that day, he was ready to do whatever God wanted him to do. And what God wanted him to do was to go and tell the people the Good News of the coming Messiah.

Short of such a vision—or maybe not short of such a vision—what would move us to tell the Good News about Jesus?

Perhaps realizing that our plight in sin is as desperate as Isaiah’s would move us to tell the Good News about Jesus. Isaiah found himself in the Presence of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world, who died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the whole world. That was enough for him to realize his sinful plight. Maybe if we saw the Lord Himself on His throne, exalted above us, we’d be moved to share our testimony, too.

Oh, but when Christ returns, we will see Him. Not in His humiliation as we are accustomed to think, but in His exaltation. Not hanging shamefully on a cross, with nails through His hands and feet, but dressed in a royal robe, seated on His throne as judge, His eyes like blazing fire. But by then, it would be too late for us to realize our sinful plight and be moved to witness, wouldn’t it?

Maybe we’d realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel if we, too, saw how even the seraphim look upon the Almighty. Those special angels used two of their wings to veil their eyes from a direct view of God’s glory.

How would we fall down before Him? Would it be as an unbeliever, begrudgingly forced to pay homage to the King of kings and Lord of Lords? Or would it be done in adoration and joy as the song, “I Can Only Imagine” tries to picture. Would we dance in joy, stand in awe, or fall to our knees? Would we sing His praises, or find ourselves speechless? Would that help us realize our plight?

Yes, I imagine it certainly would! But again, it would be too late to make a difference. It would be too late to share the Gospel with others.

Maybe, we’d realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel if we, too, witnessed the full holiness of the Lord. “Holy, holy, holy,” the seraphim cried. Holy is the triune God! Holy is His name. But it seems today, we rarely talk about God’s holiness, rather we focus almost exclusively on His love. Yes, God is love. God is the source of love. And without God’s love we’d be lost. But we must never forget His holiness, either. God is sinless. God hates sin. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. And because of that, we could never stand on our own merits in His holy presence, let alone be moved to share His holy Gospel.

Maybe we’d realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel if God shook our sanctuary, and filled it with smoke. Imagine the thunderous cry of the voices of a host of angels! The shock as the doorposts sway and the threshold shakes! The smell of smoke filling the sanctuary!

I don’t know about you, but that would certainly get my attention! But I’m afraid my fear would keep me from witnessing. Anyway, must things really have to get so bad for us to realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel?

One thing’s for certain. All this drove Isaiah to realize his desperate sinfulness. “Woe to me!” he cried. “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!”

Time and again throughout Scripture, the sinful man who suddenly becomes aware of being in the Presence of the holy God makes a confession of his sinful nature and his sin. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. St. John described his experience of being in the Presence of the ascended Christ this way in Revelation: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead” (1:17).

Even in His state of humiliation, when Jesus veiled His glory and revealed it only in glimpses, the sinner understood what it meant to be in the Presence of God. Following the miracle catch of fish, Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

You’ve come here today to this house of God to be in the very Presence of the Lord, too. But you are no less sinful than Peter. No less unclean than Isaiah. Do you realize what you’ve done by appearing here and seeking to be in God’s holy Presence? Do you understand what you’ve said when you added your “amen” to the Invocation? You’ve presented yourself here on the basis of God’s holy Name—the Name given to you on the day of your Baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah was one of God’s chosen people when the Lord brought him into the heavenly temple. Still, he remained a sinner and he knew it. “Woe to me!” Isaiah cried. “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

You are also one of God’s chosen people when you entered this house of God today. Still, though the Lord has brought you into His Kingdom by water and the Word, you’ve remained a sinner and you know it. That’s why a few minutes ago, you confessed: “O Almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”

You realize you have nothing to offer God to avert His condemnation and wrath—no good work, no sacrifice, nothing. Your continued existence here in His holy Presence is due solely to the mercy and grace of God in Christ.

“Woe is me!” Isaiah declared. “I am lost! I am unclean, and live among unclean people.” This was the first step in moving Isaiah to tell the news of the Messiah. It’s our first step too. We must confess our sins and our unworthiness.

And then, we need to realize that our forgiveness is as cleansing as Isaiah’s. After he confessed his sins, Isaiah was assured—visibly, tangibly—that he was cleansed of his sins. The hot coal touching his lips, the declaration of forgiveness spoken of by God’s own messenger, a heavenly seraph! “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” What an absolution!

But have you not heard, seen, felt, tasted, and smelled your cleansing from sin just as certainly? What about when God’s messenger, taking water, pouring it over your head, once said, “I baptize you in name of the Holy, Holy, Holy?”

Or when the same messenger of God, standing before the altar, announces: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?”

Haven’t you, too, been cleansed from sin by God’s absolution?

Or if that’s not enough, how about when God’s messenger takes something from the altar, touches your lips with it, and says, “Take, eat; take, drink; this is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” As the bread and wine touch your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.

Having been cleansed of his sins, Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” In these words, the Lord extended His call to Isaiah to be His prophet. He whose guilt had been taken away was now ready to serve when and where and how the Lord wills.

Isaiah’s vision moved him to say, “Here I am. Send me!”

What about you?  Are you as aware of your sinful plight as Isaiah was? Do you realize that you have been cleansed of those sins as tangibly, as certainly, as Isaiah was? Does your “vision” move you to tell the good news about Jesus?

If you are, if you do, then when God asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” you’ll have an answer, too. “Here I am. Send me!”

So, go in the peace and joy of the Lord, serving Him and your neighbor as He gives you opportunity, knowing that for Jesus’ sake, you are cleansed and righteous. 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 Shall Be Called by a New Name

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04.28.2018-625“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:1–5).

Sermons, Uncategorized

Out of the Depths: Sermon for the Funeral of Dorothy Brockberg

Out of the DepthsClick here to listen to this sermon.“Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, that You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Psalm 130).

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

Our text begins at the place where a man’s life is being overwhelmed, inundated, and flooded. We might imagine being in a small boat on a lake when high winds strike and the waves consume the craft in an instant. One minute you’re safe inside the boat, and the next moment you’re swept away.

While drowning is not a particularly pleasant death, it is generally quick. You don’t have a lot of time to ponder death. But imagine an overwhelming death that takes a long time, as your stranded boat floats nearly submerged over a period of years. The water up to your nose. There you are, right at death’s door, but never quite going through it. And while you wait, what do you say to God?

That’s what it must have been like for Dorothy in the last few years of her life. Only instead of it being water that rose to overwhelm her, it was Alzheimer’s. That dreadful disease took away her ability to do the things she enjoyed—serving people and volunteering. Eventually it took away even those basic things most of us take for granted—eating, drinking, walking, and even the ability to engage in conversation.  That was frustrating for everyone involved, I know, but it had to be especially frustrating for Dorothy because she lived with it all the time.

About two months ago when I visited Dorothy, she surprised me. I asked her if she would like me to read some Scripture. “Yes, I would,” she said. Somewhat shocked to find myself in a two-way conversation, I could only say, “Okay.” I would have to say that that’s the only time in the last few years that Dorothy ever had more words to say to me than I had to say to her.

Sometimes, Dorothy would join me in the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—voicing some of the words and mouthing the rest. It still amazes me how often God can use His Word to give voice to a confession of faith in one who is usually silent. But even when she could not speak, Dorothy would blink her eyes and indicate she understood and believed. She would firmly hold my hand as we prayed, giving it an occasionally squeeze as if to say, “Thank you for saying the words to God I can’t say aloud myself.”

During my visits, I reminded Dorothy that, no matter what, she could always talk to God with the thoughts and prayers in her mind. I told her even when we didn’t know what was on her mind and heart, that the Lord heard her silent prayers and her cries for help. I reminded her how the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for word. And I reminded her that the Lord loves her. He would never leave her nor forsake her. He had promised to be with her always, and the Lord always keeps His promises!

Trapped inside a failing body and mind, Dorothy Brockberg knew well what the psalmist meant: “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!”

But this psalm is not primarily about slowly drowning in the depths of a lake or even being overcome by the awful effects of a debilitating disease. The condition this psalm addresses is a spiritual one. It deals with a soul being overwhelmed with sin and the effects of sin. “If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

Or in other words, “If You, O God, should keep a list of all the sins that are charged to me, how could I remain standing? If You marked off not only the sins I do, but also the things I don’t do that I should do… If You kept track, not only of the things I said that were sins, but also those times when You required me to speak and I kept quiet… If You marked the sins of my heart… O dear God, if You kept track of all these things, could I still stand?”

The answer is a firm, “No!” No one could stand. I couldn’t. You couldn’t. Dorothy couldn’t. Not one of us could stand in the Judgment by ourselves. We’re all sinners and deserve to be consumed, overwhelmed, and drowned in the depths of the eternal Lake of Fire. And that’s a whole lot worse than any physical affliction any of us will ever experience.

The psalmist points us to the only solution to our problem of sin, “But with You there is forgiveness.” Dear friends, Jesus, the Son of God, brings us that forgiveness. In love, He takes the guilt, the shame, and the punishment of all our sins to the cross. Jesus endures all the shame, pain, and grief that others have laid on us. There, on the cross, Jesus pays the eternal price for all our sin as the wrath of God is released upon Him instead of on you and me.

The shed blood of God’s Son cries out for our pardon, and we hear His Word from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The broken body of Christ hangs on the cross, and out of the depths of hell He says, “I thirst.” Denied and crucified by man, assaulted and tortured by the forces of evil, and abandoned by the Father, Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Out of the depths, Jesus cried, and His question was answered with only silence from God. That, dear friends, is what our sins cost Him. That is what our salvation is worth to Him. This is Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). What a blessed privilege for us to confess with the psalmist, “But with You there is forgiveness.”

To those like Dorothy, and you, and I, who know the Savior, and who trust in Him, the message of forgiveness becomes ours through Baptism and the Word. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we live in daily contrition and repentance. Invited to the Lord’s Table, we receive His body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine, to strengthen and preserve us in body and soul unto life everlasting. Having been forgiven our many sins, we forgive those who have sinned against us. Having been adopted as God’s dear children, heirs of His kingdom, we gratefully look for ways to serve our heavenly Father and His kingdom now. Trusting Jesus’ promise that He has gone to prepare a place for us, we patiently wait for our Lord to bring us home one future day.

For what seems to us to be a long time, with her body continuing to deteriorate, but with her soul healed and cleansed through Word and Sacrament, Dorothy waited for the Lord to bring her home. No doubt, it was not an easy wait. She waited like the psalmist “more than watchmen wait for the morning.”

Yes indeed, “more than watchmen wait for the morning,” Dorothy waited for the Lord to bring her home. And her loving Savior was by her side all the time. And then when it was just the right time, on Friday morning, Dorothy became the beneficiary of the same promise the repentant thief heard, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.”

The psalmist urges, “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord.” At all times, but especially at times such as this, the Christian’s hope is in God and in His Word. The Word of God’s promises in Christ are what will sustain us with the hope that does not disappoint. Though we mourn Dorothy’s passing from this earth and will miss her dearly in the days and years ahead, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that for His sake, we will also have eternal life.

On the Last Day, the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, and Dorothy and all the dead in Christ, will rise, and we will be caught up together to be with the Lord forever. Then Dorothy will be able to say all those words she’s wanted to say to you during the past few years of silence. You’ll have eternity to catch up. And together Dorothy, you, I, and all believers in Christ will be able to give praise and glory to God forever. Amen.

Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. 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

His Steadfast Love Endures Forever

WordItOut-word-cloud-3214761Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).

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

We use the English Standard Version for our weekly readings. One of the things that struck me when I first started using the ESV is how many times the phrase “steadfast love” is used to describe God and His actions. I had never noticed that phrase before. And there is a good reason. While the ESV uses the phrase “steadfast love” 208 times, it’s never used in the New International Version that I used for over 20 years. The NIV has the words kindness, love, or mercy instead.

But steadfast love is a better translation. For the Hebrew word here is not the general word for “love.” It is a word that has the connotation of undeserved love and mercy, and it often refers to deeds of love and mercy that are a fulfillment of a covenant, a promise of God to His people, generally sealed with a sign.

Psalm 136 is a litany psalm designed to be sung responsively. The verses tell who God is and how He has graciously acted in history on behalf of His people, particularly in creation, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan. And these verses call upon us to praise the Lord for His loving deeds—past, current, and future—with the refrain, “for His steadfast love endures forever.”

We see this steadfast love in action in our Old Testament lesson from Genesis 9 and the aftermath of the Flood. The Flood was the greatest catastrophe that human history has known. All the awesome, destructive power of nature was displayed as the waters rose and the high mountains were covered to a depth of more than 20 feet. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

What could cause God to do such a thing? Believe it or not, it was God’s continuing concern for His creation that led Him to send the Flood. A concern expressing itself in judgment of a society that had become desperately wicked. A judgment upon a world that had become so godless that even after 100 years of Noah’s preaching only 8 people remained who trusted in the one true God. A judgment on humanity whose wickedness on the earth had become so great that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.

Oh, it must have been bad back then we think. It’s good that things got much better after the Flood. God culled out the riff-raff, so He could start all over with righteous Noah and his family. Certainly humanity is much better today, isn’t it?

Popular opinion would hold that most people are basically good; they just need a little boost to get over the hump. They just need God to come with His Word and show them what to do and they’ll be just fine.

But then we read in Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (vv.1-3).

St. Paul echoes this thought in Romans 3, with a litany of Old Testament quotes: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (vv. 10-18). The Apostle sums up the human condition this way, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

But we don’t have to go that late in history to see the depth of human depravity. Just after Noah, his family, and the animals stepped off the ark, and Noah sacrificed burnt offerings on Mount Ararat, The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in His heart: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

Did you catch that? Yes, God had resolved never again to curse the earth because of man. But His decision was not prompted by a change in human nature. Tucked into the middle of His promise is God’s assessment of the human condition even after the Flood: “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

The depravity of man is still a fact of life in this fallen world. By nature, we’re no better than the sinful humanity that led God to destroy His creation, to start again. You and I are—as we just confessed—poor, miserable sinners who have offended God with all our sins and iniquities, and justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.

But God is gracious and merciful. God’s steadfast love goes so far that He does not leave Noah and his family on their own after the Flood. He gives them a blessing, very similar to that expressed to Adam and Eve at creation. And then God gives them one more word of assurance as they are about to set out on their new lives. God does so in the most solemn and binding form of divine promise—by means of a covenant. Think of it! God actually obligated Himself to observe the terms of a solemn contract: Never again a flood!

In addition to assuring them with words that He would never send another Flood, God gave them a visible sign as a seal of His promise: “I have set My bow in the cloud.” Whenever the rainbow appears, God remembers His covenant. And whenever the rainbow appears, all of Noah’s descendants are reminded that God is faithful to His promise, His steadfast love endures forever.

Fast forward to another mountain, many centuries later. Once again God has rescued His people, bringing the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt with the Passover and a miraculous Red Sea crossing. There in the Sinai wilderness, Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord reminded Moses of His steadfast love: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:3-6).

The Lord confirmed this covenant by inviting Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel to join Him on the mountain. Moses built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and appointed young men to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord.

“And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Exodus 24:6-8).

Each year, Israel was to commemorate the night in which the angel of the Lord struck down the first born of the Egyptians and “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, whose doorposts had been painted with the blood of the lamb. God instructed Israel to never forget that it was not their own sacrifices or holy living, but His power and grace that brought them deliverance. Consequently, each yearly Passover celebration was more than a mere historical remembrance. All participants were united again to the gracious God who had come down to rescue their ancestors, and they were able to give thanks to the Lord for His steadfast love.

But God, in His steadfast love, was not through making covenants. Move forward in history almost fifteen centuries. The eleven disciples gathered in Galilee, at the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

God does not change. The Lord is steadfast. He deals with His people in the same manner He always has—by the mercy and grace of His covenant love. And once again He uses ordinary water connected to His living Word. God continues to use water both as a means of judgment and as a means of salvation.

As in Noah’s day, God continues to provide a special ark large enough for all repentant sinners that will carry them safely through all His judgments upon an evil world. In the waters of Baptism, God again delivers man from the sin-dominated world into the new creation that Christ brings. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.”

God understands our needs as sinful people. Our greatest need is to know we are personally forgiven and loved in spite of our sin. Our gracious Lord also realizes our need to be in fellowship both with Him and others around us. God miraculously fulfills this special need through His gifts to us in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are His Word accompanied by actions that involve our senses—sight, hearing, taste, and touch.

Thus, when God connects His Holy Word to ordinary water, it becomes life-giving, saving water in Holy Baptism. When God connect His Holy Word to the earthly bread and wine in Holy Communion, these become special and assuring “signs” that not only point us to His incarnate love, mercy, and forgiveness, but actually deliver these blessings in His very own body and blood.

Christ’s blood shed on Mount Calvary replaced the old covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the sinners’ true Passover Lamb. His blood takes away the sin of the world. In the new covenant, our once crucified but now living Lord personally embraces you with the very body and blood that He poured out on the cross to deliver you from sin, death, and the devil. No wonder after receiving communion we sing a variation of our text: “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good; and His mercy endureth forever.”

Yes, the Lord’s steadfast love certainly does endure forever! Through all ages the Lord continues to reach out to man with His grace and mercy. The Lord continues to make and keep His promises. The Lord continues to give us signs to reassure us of His undeserved forgiveness and favor.

The Lord God brought Noah and his family safely to a new creation through the waters of the Flood. With the sign of the rainbow, He promised never again to destroy the earth because of man’s sin. The Lord God has brought you rebirth and regeneration through the waters of Baptism. Through the water and the Word, He makes you His child and promises never to leave you nor forsake you.

The Lord God brought Israel from the bondage of Egypt to the Promised Land. The blood of the covenant sprinkled upon the people was the sign that sealed His promise to Israel. Today, the Lord God gives you the new covenant in His blood—His very body and blood given to you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith unto life everlasting in His eternal Promised Land. Where you have failed to keep your Word and promises, the Lord God’s promises endure forever. Where your love fails and falters, the Lord God’s steadfast love endures forever. Where you have sinned and abounded in wickedness, the Lord God brings you this Good News: You are forgiven of 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.

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The Resurrection and the Life Have the Last Word at the Cemetery

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“The Resurrection of Lazarus” by James I. Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

Each of you here today has a special connection to Jerry and/or his family. That’s why you’re here. You’ve loved him, liked him, lived with him. You’ve worked with him in his role as City Finance Officer; he has been your neighbor or friend or family. For over forty years, I had the privilege of calling Jerry my friend, one of my best friends.

The first time I met Jerry was at South Dakota Agriculture Youth Institute in Brookings. We were assigned as roommates. The first thing Jerry said to me was “I need to tell you that I’m a diabetic so that if you walk in here and see me with a syringe you don’t think I’m a junkie.” A couple of years later, we were roommates as we attended the ag program at Mitchell Vo-tech. When I was foolish enough to binge drink tequila the night of my twentieth birthday, Jerry was one of the only ones to stay at the hospital until my parents got there.

We served as attendants in each other’s wedding. And he was a godparent for my youngest daughter. As the years went by, Jerry and I didn’t see each other much, (too often it seems that when we did it involved doctors or funeral homes,) but whenever we got together, it didn’t take long to pick up right where we left off.

Jerry and I saw each other at our best; we saw each other at our worst. And I suppose from a worldly perspective this must be about the worst. I was surprised, but not totally shocked, to receive the call from Chelsea that Jerry had died. After all, Jerry had battled with health issues for most of his life. But I didn’t realize just how ill Jerry was, and I feel bad about that because it would have been good for us to have another visit—to catch up on life, and to catch up on things eternal. Now, I feel a little like the disciples and Mary and Martha thought of Jesus when His friend, Lazarus, died; that it seems like I’ve shown up a few days too late.

But I’m thankful that Jerry requested me to lead this service. Through the years, Jerry and his family have been in my daily prayers, and I pray that God would use this time so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. While I no longer have the opportunity to speak with Jerry, I do have the opportunity to speak with you, to share the only words that can bring true comfort in a time like this.

What words? Words like Jesus’ words in our text from John 11:25, where He meets His grieving friends at the cemetery and says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

“Do you believe this?” He asks Martha, looking for an extemporaneous confession of faith. But a cemetery is a hard place to confess. It may be an easy place to open your eyes and weep, to open your mind and reminisce, to open your arms and embrace. But it’s not an easy place to open your mouth and say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” A cemetery is a hard place to confess.

Why is that? Is it simply because our emotions get the best of us? Is it because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything at all? Perhaps. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I suspect a cemetery is a hard place to confess because that place, more than any other, seems to be the enemy’s public trophy case. Every tombstone appears to be another plaque on death’s wall. There it seems that no matter how valiantly we fight for life, death always comes out on top. He always throws the knockout punch. He always wins the gold. A cemetery itself seems to confess, “You, O mortal, have lost.”

At least, that is the way it seems to be, the way it looks to the naked human eye. Looks, however, can be quite deceiving, can’t they? The naked human eye sees the cemetery, the coffin, the corpse, and man is easily deceived into thinking death has won once again.

Ah, but therein lies the problem: the naked human eye. What that naked eye needs is clothing, that kind of clothing that will enable it to see through the deceptions of death, to see beyond the cemetery, the coffin, and the corpse, to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. What that naked, human, easily deceived eye needs is to be clothed with these words from the mouth of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” A cemetery may be a hard place to confess, but with that simple confession, a cemetery is no longer seen as a place of defeat, but a place of victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just ask Mary and Martha. These two sisters, also friends of our Lord, sent for Him when their brother Lazarus fell ill. They waited and they waited, and finally He came. But it was too late (at least it seemed that way). Lazarus was already dead. The sickness had moved too quickly, and Jesus had delayed coming until Lazarus was not only dead, but buried and in the tomb four days.

When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, it seemed that everyone was pointing an accusing finger at Him. Three times Jesus was told, “If only You had been here, Lazarus would still be alive.” Martha, at least, held out a tiny hope that Jesus might still do something, anything, to help. She said, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” When Jesus told Martha that her brother shall rise again, she responded, “I know that He will rise again in the resurrection on the Last Day.”

In saying this, Martha confessed the truth, but she did not confess the whole truth. For the whole truth of the Christian faith is not just in something that will be, but in someone who is; not just in a distant hope, but in a present reality; not just in a future salvation, but in a salvation here-and-now. The truth of the Christian faith is an embodied truth, a flesh-and-blood truth in the one who says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks. Martha responds, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Martha doesn’t know what that all means, but she trusts that Jesus is the Savior.

Jesus goes to the tomb, deeply moved and weeping. Behold your Savior, the God who cries at funerals. Even though He knows He will raise Lazarus from the dead in just moments, He hurts with Mary and Martha because they hurt. Please be assured: As we gather here today, Jesus hurts with you as well in your grief.

Who Christ is will become clear in that cemetery near Bethany. Martha didn’t want the stone rolled back; Lazarus had been dead four days. But at Jesus’ insistence, she relented and the tomb was opened.

Truth be told, amid that crowd gathered at the cemetery, the only one who completely believed in Christ’s power over death was the dead man. He alone truly heeded the voice of Christ. Mary had heard, and the crowd had heard, yet their hearts were still crowded with doubt and grief. But the dead man, he believed; Lazarus heeded the Word of Christ. “Lazarus, come forth,” Jesus called out. And so he did. He, who is the resurrection and life, who is resurrected, raised Lazarus. The man who had died came out of the tomb. That dead man who now lived was a living trophy of Christ’s victory over the enemy called death.

A cemetery is a hard place to confess, unless standing beside you is the One who stands triumphant upon the neck of death. That place of graves is a hard place to confess, unless He who rose from His own grave lives within you and within the one whose body is laid to rest. This is true, not just in a cemetery, but in any place in this fallen world in which we see with the naked human eye only loss, heartache, and defeat. In those places, that naked, human, easily-deceived eye needs to be clothed with these words from the mouth of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25).

You are mourning right now. And some of you will be mourning for years to come. When a man like Jerry Jones goes out of your life it leaves a hole. But I pray that this text gives you comfort. Christ has died and Christ is risen from the dead. He is not the resurrection and the life only in the past, as if He retired from that after raising Lazarus from the dead. He is not the resurrection and the life only in the future, on the Last Day. He is the resurrection and life, now and forevermore.

Where Jesus is, life is. And whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. By His forgiveness, He already declares that eternal life is yours, for He has done all to accomplish it by His death and resurrection. In baptism, Jesus declares, “Come out! Come out of the bondage of sin, for I make you My beloved child this day! Come out of death, for I am the resurrection and the life—and I make you alive forever by water and the Word.”

The resurrection at the font is a greater miracle than the one of Lazarus at the tomb: Jesus gave physical life back to Lazarus’ body, but that life would be lost again—Lazarus’ body would die again. Jesus gives eternal life to you in the water and Word. Unless the Lord returns, your body will eventually die. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, your soul will not: you are alive forever, and the Lord will raise your body up, too, on the Last Day.

This true for you. It is also true for those you mourn who died in the faith. Those who died in the faith are not dead, because the Lord is not the Lord of the dead but of the living. Their bodies rest in the grave for now, but they live even now with Christ in heaven. You have His promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

Do you believe this?

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 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.